When Bajau People Speak for Themselves

When Bajau People Speak For Themselves

In a new documentary, three generations of a Bajau family try to figure out who their seafaring people will become in the 21st century

By Matt Colaciello | October 29, 2018

⇪ Trailer for Our Land is the Sea (Indonesian: Air Tanahku)⇪

The Bajau people are famous for their seafaring way of life and almost superhuman free diving abilities. A National Geographic article about the size of their spleens—an evolutionary adaption to lives spent in the water—went viral earlier this year. But the Bajau people of Southeast Asia are so much more than what initially meets the eyes and lens. The knowledge and insight they’ve evolved as people of the sea is at least as interesting as the size of their spleens. And what they’re saying about the ways that climate change and land-centric politics are affecting their lives will make you wonder why Nat Geo and the BBC have never just let the Bajau speak for themselves.

What follows is an interview with Bajau thinker and activist, Andar. He is one of the primary subjects of a short documentary I just made with anthropologist Kelli Swazey that follows three generations of a family as they work to figure out who they will be as Bajau people in 21st century.


 Andar’s village, Sampela, from above.

Andar’s village, Sampela, from above.

Q: How does living at sea make the Bajau different from other people?

There aren't that many ethnic groups in Indonesia like the Bajau. Almost all of the groups in Indonesia are based on land. Their ideas about tradition and beliefs are all based on land. I'll give an example. On land when we walk by foot, we have to walk on the road. If we cut across someone's yard, we get kicked off. So on land, there are rules even just to walk around on foot. Living on land, your inherent freedom is limited. But for us on the sea, it's not like that. You can go wherever you want, south or north. There isn't anyone who can forbid you. So what I want to say is that Bajau people have very strong beliefs about freedom and independence.

The second point is about the ocean. It's said that Indonesia is a “maritime country,” right? And a third of this planet is ocean too. But most people live on land. The ocean has been used by others for trade and to control other territories. Over the course of history, the ocean was used for expanding power. But it was limited to that.

“We live on the sea and our religion is an ocean religion. all of the aspects of the ocean figure into that.”

 Young father and fisherman, Ahdan, doubts there’s a future for his children in a community dependent on increasingly scarce marine resources.

Young father and fisherman, Ahdan, doubts there’s a future for his children in a community dependent on increasingly scarce marine resources.

For the Bajau, the ocean is the marine realm, in all of its aspects. We live on the sea and our religion is an "ocean religion". All of the aspects that are in the ocean figure into that. For example: waves. In waves there is power. They Bajau believe in waves there is a kind of power, a spirit or a life force. A kind of deity. There are ancestors who live in the waves. They have names. There are whirlpools or upwellings, where the sea water rises from below and we believe these are sacred spaces. And there you find lots of plankton, what becomes the basic source, what is eaten by the sea life. This is what the Bajau consider to be a sacred place.

“The ocean is the source of our lives. All of the sea life, all of the complex ways of catching fish. All of that makes us who we are.”

The ocean speaks to us. The foam on the waves—it's a sign of danger. If you see foam on the waves, it's like the sea is challenging you. The sea foam is something that has to be considered. In the mangrove forests on the coasts, Bajau think there are evil spirits there. If you damage the mangroves, those spirits become angry.

The ocean is the source of our lives. All of the sea life, all of the complex ways of catching fish. All of that makes us who we are. Fishermen aren't as simple as you think we are. We use the waves and the currents, the tides, the seasonal weather patterns, the wind, to know where we should go to find products of the sea. For us everything is about the sea.

Andar’s son is about to be blessed by Mbo Juta, a Bajau elder or sandro.

Q: So as a tribe…

The Bajau aren't a tribe.

Q: So what are the Bajau?

Bajau are a community. We aren't a tribe because we aren’t an ethnic group. We have intermarried and mixed since a long time ago. We are a community that feels we share the same fate. We like to roam. We like to be at sea. We like to fish. That's what connects us as one community. There are Bajau that are light-skinned, dark skinned, some with curly hair, some who look like white people too with red hair, all kinds. We are mixed.

 The boardwalk or  jembatan  connects homes in Sampela. It’s also where everyone hangs out.

The boardwalk or jembatan connects homes in Sampela. It’s also where everyone hangs out.

Q: In the film we saw some scenes about beliefs, about the issues surrounding the Bajau shaman, or sandro. You believe in the octopus twin and the practice of giving offerings to the ocean. These are beliefs that have been passed down over time. How many people still practice these things now? And are these rituals being practiced less over the last few years?

This last generation, the young people now, they have started to move away from those practices. When they go to university around Indonesia, there are always religious organizations, and I'm sorry to say this, but what I've seen in Sampela is that the majority of those young people coming home from university now have a different set of ideals. They consider their own traditions inappropriate to be proud of. I don't know whose fault this is. Whether it’s their own fault or maybe it's their professors. But, yeah, that's what's happened.

 Bajau elder, or sandro, Mbo Sayatina performs a ritual for an expectant mother after making offerings to the sea.

Bajau elder, or sandro, Mbo Sayatina performs a ritual for an expectant mother after making offerings to the sea.

“You couldn’t just say, ‘My name is Andar and My address is the sea.’”

Q: Why aren’t the Bajau nomadic anymore?

During the New Order [the reign of Indonesian President Suharto, 1966-1998], there was a requirement for people to register. People had to have an address, a place where they lived. The Bajau didn't have addresses. You couldn’t just say, "My name is Andar and my address is the sea.” So the Bajau had to settle. We started to build villages but the mindset of people of the sea, of nomadic people, that didn't end. Now we build settlements and usually it's the women who stay there while their husbands go to sea. Previously they would have lived together in one boat. They lived wherever they were looking for fish.

Q: It seems like the Bajau don’t have a written history. Can you explain your oral tradition?

We are an oral culture. If we talk about historical times, about the time of the kingdoms, they had written documents. The kingdoms in South Sulawesi wrote with Bugis orthography. The Bajau didn't have their own written tradition. They were illiterate. But interestingly, they were written about by others. In Bali, in West Bali, there is a sacred text that mentions the name of the Bajau. There's a lot of literature from the Bima Kingdom that talks about the Bajau. In South Sulawesi, the Bone Kingdom had lots of written stories of the Bajau. In Luwuk, in Makassar, you can see examples but most of the documents ended up in Leiden in the Netherlands.

But for the Bajau ourselves, history is recorded in songs. I helped someone doing their PhD research, one of Kelli's colleagues at the University of Hawai'i. We recorded epic folksongs about our history. There was one that went on for 17 hours. The singer sang it all the way through until it was done. The songs are called Ikiko. In the past, before people would go to sea for a season, they'd gather together on their boats and someone would start to sing Ikiko. The rest of the people would forget about fishing, they'd fall asleep, and the one who was singing would get the best catch. Yeah, we need to have these.

Bajau Wakatobi

Q: So most of the stories about the Bajau are written by outsiders? I think it's really important that our friends in the Bajau community possess or write their own perspectives.

Yeah, but who?

The Bajau still have a subsistence lifestyle—look for what you need for today. We have a short-term way of thinking. We don't yet think about what's going to happen in the future. In Wakatobi, near our village, there is a big organization. They've brought in foreign researchers from Europe and Australia. They've been studying the coral reefs, and the amount of fish the locals catch. The results of this research show that from year to year there has been a decrease in the amount of fish caught and the fish that are caught are smaller and smaller. Overfishing has already happened where we live. And according to their research the condition of the coral is also degrading. It's difficult.

Q: Because it's too hot?

It's too hot, and human activity has contributed to the destruction. And people's way of thinking has changed from subsistence to a modern lifestyle, one that's very consumption driven. Now Bajau people want expensive cell phones and fancy houses, so they have to catch a lot of fish. For the Bajau, the safest thing would be to return to a subsistence culture. Just catching enough from the sea for day-to-day existence. Not for the days ahead, just for today. Eat, and then look for more tomorrow. Now there are so many foreign boats that enter the Banda Sea, and the Bajau get interested in getting big boats too to look for tuna. Going back to a subsistence lifestyle is seen as a last resort even though it’s the most sustainable option.

And as for climate change, we can't play around with this. In the city it's harder to feel it. It's harder to see it. Yeah it was hot before, it's hot now. And if you are using air conditioning how would you know the climate is changing, or that there are changes in temperature?

“Just like we don’t joke about bombs, we shouldn’t joke about climate change either.”

For us at sea, we've asked the elders. When we were filming with Kelli and Matt a few months ago, we talked to an elderly man named Mbo Juta and even he said it's already too late. To return us to the conditions the way they used to be is impossible. It's not possible. This is what has happened, and we all should be concerned. So many people see climate change as something as just a way to get projects. "Hey, let's make a proposal for research or something," but it has to be more than that. We have to take action. This is the voice from Sampela. It's happened. It's before our eyes. And it's drastic. At first it was happening slowly but then all of a sudden it’s gotten really bad.

 Women from Sampela selling fish at the market on the nearby island. The women pull up in their boats and never have to go on land.

Women from Sampela selling fish at the market on the nearby island. The women pull up in their boats and never have to go on land.

Last month, for example… at low tide sea floor is exposed in some areas around Sampela. In that area seaweed grows. The minnows live there too. They don't go out to the deep sea. Even if the seaweed dries out a bit we can see the minnows are still there, we see them move around and hide. But it’s gotten so hot that after two or three hours if the cooler water from the deeper sea doesn't return, they all die. They float up to the surface. This isn't normal. I asked some of the elders if it was like this before and they said no. They said maybe people are poisoning the water, polluting it, using detergents that wash out into the sea. But that's not it. There has been a significant change in the temperature of the ocean. It's happened. Just like we don't joke about bombs, we shouldn't make climate change into a joke either.

 Salma, Andar’s eldest daughter isn’t sure if she believes in Bajau traditional practices, preferring her religion, Islam, over her ancestor’s sea-based mythology.

Salma, Andar’s eldest daughter isn’t sure if she believes in Bajau traditional practices, preferring her religion, Islam, over her ancestor’s sea-based mythology.

Q: What will happen in the future if the Bajau all have to move to land? It seems modernization is also something that can't be avoided.

Yes, it will happen. The population grows every year and at the same time the natural resources are less and less. It's ironic. It's the right of people to determine what kind of life they want, if they want to live on land, if they want to become civil servants, open a business on land, become a motorcycle taxi driver. It's no problem. What's happening definitely threatens us, but the Bajau won't be driven to extinction. We will just document so that everything is not lost.

Culture isn't just ceremonial. It seems what we see of 'culture' these days is mostly ceremonial. I dance or do martial arts, you can go to a museum, it's not that kind of culture we want to preserve. What people in Sampela want is culture that's really in us, in our hearts and our spirits, in our social connections with others in the village. It's that culture we want to keep alive. Not the ceremonial kind you see on stage.

Bajau shaman makes offerings

Our Land is the Sea will be available to stream online on the UH Mānoa website.