The Bajau: At home on the sea

The Bajau people are often described as Southeast Asia’s sea gypsies. Their skills as sailors, skin-divers, and fishermen are admired, while at the same time they are reviled for willfully destructive practices such as fish bombing and the use of cyanide in coral reefs.

Most Bajau live on houses on stilts over the sea. If necessary, they can move their villages to a new location. Photograph by Poriaman Sitanggang. Copyright 2010 Poriaman Sitanggang / PNPM Peduli.

Introduction

(Top of page)

The Bajau people are often described as Southeast Asia’s sea gypsies. Their skills as sailors, skin-divers, and fishermen are admired, while at the same time they are reviled for willfully destructive practices such as fish bombing and the use of cyanide in coral reefs.

The term “sea gypsies” captures the romantic notion that the Bajau are nomads who roam the ocean in small boats from birth to death, living simply off its riches. Like the Rom, the gypsies of Europe, they are often imagined to be colorful rogues who live outside society, ignoring its laws and conventions. Like most racial stereotypes, this vision is simplistic and inaccurate, with just enough truth in it to make it even more dangerous. Indeed, the vast majority of Bajau live on or near the sea. A very high proportion do, in fact, earn a living by fishing. It is true that among the vast majority of the Bajau, there is indeed a strong tradition of migration and travel. As a result, Bajau people are found living in coastal settlements throughout Indonesia, particularly in the east. They are also found in places as distant as the Martaban Gulf in Burma, the Malacca Strait, the Sulu Sea, and the seas off Papua and northern Australia.

Like the Rom, the Bajau most likely do not travel and migrate because of an inherent desire to roam. While individuals or entire communities may travel or relocate, they probably do so only when it becomes difficult to remain where they are living. They may be pressured to move because of changes in environmental conditions that make earning a living in their present location difficult. They may move because of conflict with established land-based communities or government authorities. When local conditions are conducive, Bajau communities may remain settled in a single area for decades or even generations. In some areas of Southeast Asia such as Sabah, Malaysia, they have remained settled long enough to become fully integrated into the local community. In some districts of Sabah, Bajau people successfully engage in farming and horse- and cattle-breeding. There are historical precedents for Bajau people settling down and integrating, stretching back for centuries. In some places and times, such as pre-colonial Brunei, they became a politically powerful group at the court of the Sultan, with a favored position in society.

In modern-day Indonesia, however, the Bajau are on average less well educated and poorer than other Indonesians. However, their low educational attainment is not necessarily because the Bajau have an aversion to education. Rather, while cultural factors may play a part, it is far more likely that it is due to the fact that many live in remote areas, including islands, where educational services are often seriously lacking. While many Bajau are poor, this is equally true of other communities who live by fishing. This has become particularly true over the past few decades, with the ongoing global depletion of marine life due to excessive exploitation and climate change. Despite the difficulties and challenges currently facing the Bajau, they have both a strong tradition of self-reliance and a strong sense of community. With these traits, individuals and communities of Bajau have worked hard to organize themselves and lobby for access to the facilities they need to improve their welfare. Among other initiatives, Bajau people have established Bajau-language radio stations and magazines, schools to meet their specific needs, and community forums to conserve the environment in cooperation with other ethnic groups.

Rostom, “Pak Kobau”

Wakatobi, South-East Sulawesi

(Top of page)

“The land people always say that the Bajau don’t care about the environment because they don’t feel a strong attachment to any particular area. They say that when we’ve destroyed one place, we just move along somewhere else and do the same thing there.”

The Bajau are happy living anywhere where they can make a living from the sea. For a Bajau fisherman, there’s nothing unusual about leaving one place and going off to work in another for years at a time. I was born in Mola, a Bajau settlement on Wanci Wanci Island. When I was four or five, my parents moved with a number of families to Kaledupa Island, also in the Wakatobi conservation area. When I was fifteen, after I finished junior high school, I left home to work on a fishing boat in Malaysia. In the Bajau language, we call it sakai. That means leaving the place where you have lived for more than a year, without definite plans to return.

I made my way up to Kalimantan and then over the border to Malaysia by myself, without any documents of any kind, not even an Indonesian identity card. Wherever I went, I stayed at the houses of kin in Bajau villages on the coast. You can go all the way from Timor to Burma, and you’ll find Bajau villages. The language is the same, although people speak with different accents in different areas. In all those villages, I found households that had some connection with my family in Mola.

In Tabrakan, Kalimantan, a distant cousin helped me find work on a boat in Malaysia. The owner of the boat was a Chinese Malaysian, but the captain was a Bajau from the Philippines. There were a few other Indonesian Bajau working as crew, and one or two Indonesians from Makassar, but no Malaysians. Malaysians wouldn’t be prepared to do the kind of back-breaking work we did for the salary we were paid. We got 300 ringgit a month. In Indonesia, on traditional boats, the fishing crew usually divides the profits from their catch, with two shares going to the owner of the boat, one share to the owner of the other equipment, and one share each to the members of the crew. In Malaysia, we just got a set salary, but it was still much more than I would have earned in Indonesia.

I was caught by the Malaysian maritime police three times during the four years I was there. They didn’t treat me badly, they just locked me up in a police cell and then deported me to Tabrakan. Each time I just went back across the border the same day. After the third time I went back, the Filipino Bajau captain said he was returning to the Philippines. He asked me to go with him.

In Malaysia, we used fishing nets and operated more or less within the law. In the Philippines, I worked on a pirate fishing operation. We fished with bombs and cyanide most of the time, often over coral reefs, where most of the fish are. There’s no denying that it’s destructive, particularly bombing. With one large bomb, you can kill or stun every fish for a fifty-meter radius. But once you’ve bombed a reef, you’ll hardly find a fish there for years after. Even five years later, you can still see the damage that’s been done to the reef.

Everywhere I go it’s the same. There are less fish than there used to be. The Bajau people know better than anyone that the fish are running out, because we depend on them for our survival. It’s the same in the waters of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia. The land people always say that the Bajau don’t care about the environment because they don’t feel a strong attachment to any particular area. They say that when we’ve destroyed one place, we just move along somewhere else and do the same thing there. They say the Bajau are just looking for quick, easy profits, which is why we use destructive fishing methods.

I don’t agree with that. It’s not easy fishing with bombs and cyanide. When you pack the bombs and take them out in the boat, there’s always the risk that they can explode. When you set the fuse, there’s always the risk that the bomb will go off too early. To retrieve the fish, you have to dive down into the water without any special equipment, until it feels like your lungs are bursting. A fisherman can pass out and die underwater because he runs out of breath before he reaches the surface. There’s nothing easy about fish-bombing. I say that the Bajau sometimes use the methods they do because they can’t compete with the big operators with expensive equipment. With the fish running out, a lot of fishermen feel that those methods are the only way that they can make enough money to feed their children.

When I got back to Kaledupa, I got involved in Forkani, a community-based environmental awareness organization. People here are forgetting the old traditions that used to govern the relationships between the land people, the Bajau, and the environment that we share. When the Bajau built their villages over the water, they didn’t just come here without permission. They asked permission from the owners of the land. They were granted permission because the two communities needed each other. There was trade between the two groups, and a certain proportion of our catch was always set aside for the land-owners. There used to be local councils to decide which areas were becoming depleted of fish, with everyone agreeing to leave those areas alone until the fish came back. At Forkani, we aren’t saying that we have to go back to all the old traditions. We are saying that we should record and collate them so that the community can look at them and decide what’s still relevant. I joined Forkani because I saw that practically no other members of the Bajau community were involved, maybe only three or four others. It won’t work if the only people involved are land people. Maybe I’m a bit different from other Bajau. Most Bajau are shy about dealing with land people. When I was young, I’d only go onto land in a group of three or four Bajau. I just didn’t feel comfortable dealing with the land people. A lot of people still feel that way. There isn’t any conflict or hostility, but the two communities don’t mix well. We need to get the two communities to understand each other better. I feel that I can play a role, because I can talk to the Bajau in our own language. Bajau people are more likely to listen to someone from their own community than to an outsider.

I say that the best way to ensure the cooperation of the Bajau is to work out a way that we can use our skills in a non-destructive way. If the Bajau had access to capital, we could form a cooperative to buy modern boats and equipment. The government tries to patrol the waters to prevent illegal practices, but they only have a handful of boats and limited equipment. Instead, they could work with Bajau people to patrol the waters themselves. The Bajau are out on the sea all their lives. We know it better than anyone. We have names for species of fish that have never even been recorded. We know straight away when something’s out of the ordinary. Not all the Bajau are involved in illegal practices, and the ones who aren’t resent those who are. If the government just gave a group of Bajau rangers simple equipment like mobile phones and radios, we could report on illegal activities. We could monitor and control our own community. The Bajau are never going to become farmers, but if the government helped us to use our maritime skills productively, we could make a contribution to the nation. The government should look at us as an asset, not just as a bunch of troublemakers.

(Top of page)

Harris Ibrahim

Kendari, South East Sulawesi

Haris Ibrahim runs a weekly radio program that uses the Bajau language. Members of Bajau communities all over Indonesia tune in to listen. Photograph by Poriaman Sitanggang. Copyright 2010 Poriaman Sitanggang / PNPM Peduli.

“I was often involved in assisting Bajau people involved in land rights disputes. I was an advocate for fishing people who had been arrested for fish-bombing. In 2007, I wrote a proposal to establish a weekly radio program using the Bajau language. It’s transmitted from Kendari, but I know that Bajau people all across Indonesia as far away as Timor tune in.”

I was born in a Bajau village on Saponda Island in 1967. My parents were fishing people, like practically everyone on Saponda. When I was young, there was only a primary school on the island. Back then, secondary schools in remote, unpopulated areas were practically unheard of. No one went past primary school. In those days, the village head and all the government officials, the schoolteachers, the district nurse, they were all outsiders from the mainland. There was no one on the island qualified to serve in those positions. Positions were often vacant because no one from the mainland wanted to serve in such a remote area. If outsiders came, they usually stayed for only a year or so. Then the position would become vacant again.

I determined somehow to be the first boy from the island to complete high school. My father gave me his blessing but told me he wouldn’t be able to give me any money. I went to Kendari and found the former head of my primary school. For the first years in Kendari, I lived in his house as a servant, working from morning until night, with time off only to attend school.

When I graduated, I got a job as a seaman on a large ship. I travelled to Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Wherever I went, around the ports and on the coastlines, I saw Bajau people. Their villages looked like mine, and the people spoke the same language. I always took the time to meet them and talk to them. Through my travels, I came to realize how widely spread the Bajau are across the world, but they are mostly poor, powerless, and uneducated. Other ethnic groups have their own organizations and formal support networks, but the Bajau have nothing like that.

Actually, it’s not true that all Bajau people are poor, uneducated fishing people. There are a few wealthy Bajau who own small fleets of boats. Even though levels of education are lower than average, quite a few have managed to finish school and to make their mark. The mother of the Deputy Regent of Wakatobi was a Bajau, and so are a few senior officials of the regional planning office. Even so, you can be sure that to achieve those positions, they had to overcome challenges and difficulties of all sorts.

When I came back to Kendari, I worked in the operational section of the public works department for a period, but I wasn’t satisfied. I knew that as a low-level employee, I’d never be in a position to help my family and my people. After a few years, I left to work as an activist with legal rights organizations. I often helped Bajau people involved in land rights disputes. I was also an advocate for people who had been arrested for fish-bombing, so I became concerned with environmental issues as well. Later, in 2005, I set up a newsletter in the Bajau language to address those issues, among others. In 2007 I wrote a proposal to establish a weekly radio program broadcast in the Bajau language. It’s transmitted from Kendari, but I know that Bajau people all across Indonesia as far away as Timor tune in.

Land rights are an essential issue for the Bajau. Because the Bajau usually live on public land at the sea line, they have very little security. They often don’t have deep roots in the local community, so they can be shifted away. In the Soeharto era, that happened even more frequently than it does now, often with devastating consequences. Entire communities were moved inland, far from the sea, with practically no proper facilities. Maybe the intentions were good, to settle the Bajau and to bring them to areas where they could have access to schools and medical facilities, but the programs were often very badly implemented, without enough funding or support. I have to admit, over the past ten years, since the fall of Soeharto and the advent of regional autonomy, the situation has gotten a lot better. The national and the regional governments are getting better about listening to people.

My own parents were forcibly shifted to a new community site in the Soeharto era. When they protested, the officials threatened that if they resisted, they would be considered anti-government trouble-makers. In their new site, they had very limited supplies of fertilizer, seed, and pesticide. After a couple of years, they abandoned the place. The program wasn’t nearly as well funded as the interprovincial transmigration programs. But the government said the program failed because the Bajau can’t adjust to living on land. Actually, I don’t agree that the Bajau are always fishing people and can only live on the sea, even if that’s what our ancestors said. I’ve seen a few examples of entire Bajau communities that became successful farmers, when they got the support they needed.

The Bajau are often blamed for causing the destruction of the maritime environment, but a lot of the time they are convenient scapegoats. More often than not, they are the victims of environmental disasters, not the perpetrators of them. Yes, they are often involved in fish-bombing, but the damage caused by fish-bombing is nothing compared to the damage caused by logging and mining operations. When we went to visit Pak Udin in Hakatutobu yesterday, you could see for yourself how much destruction the mining company’s operations caused. And in return, the company builds a few houses each year for the community and creates a few jobs in the port. That’s poor compensation when the people can no longer earn a living from fishing.

Yesterday, when Pak Udin started talking about the destruction and damage, I deliberately changed the topic and asked him how the community had benefited from the company’s presence. I reminded him that it wasn’t all bad. Actually, I wasn’t being entirely honest. I was disgusted by what we saw, but I could see he was getting upset. There’s no point in going into a community and provoking them to become angry. We aren’t trying to start a revolution. I encourage people to look for constructive solutions and to concentrate on the areas of their lives that they have control over.

That’s the reason I’m always promoting education and political participation, through my newsletter and radio show. I always say that whatever the problems facing the Bajau, nothing will change without those two factors. We need good leaders and we need to act collectively. I use the media to tell the Bajau about scholarships and work opportunities. I say that we need to speak with one voice when we demand facilities. We need to find a political party that is prepared to support the building of schools in remote areas, even if they are single-classroom schools or require home study. Then we must support that party as a group. I don’t want the next generation of Bajau to face the same difficulties I did in getting an education.

At the same time, we have to be reasonable. We can’t expect the government to invest a disproportionate amount of resources in our community. When people call the radio station to complain about unofficial charges for medical services or education in remote areas, I remind them of how difficult it is to get facilities there in the first place. I remind them to weigh the benefits of having those facilities against the costs. If we complain too loudly or too readily, the government will dismiss us entirely. We have to present our case in such a way that we aren’t branded as troublemakers. We have to show that the Bajau people can make a positive contribution and be a valuable part of Indonesian society. All we need is some support and facilities to help that happen. But we can’t wait for the government to give it to us. We need to organize to make it happen.

Erni Bajo

Kendari, South East Sulawesi

(Top of page)

Erni Bajo, schoolteacher and singer, in a village similar to the one in which she was born and raised. Photograph by Irfan Kortschak. Copyright 2010 Irfan Kortschak / PNPM Peduli

“Almost all the children in my village go to school now. The parents hold me up as an example of what can be achieved through education. When I fought with my parents about going to high school, I never imagined that I would go this far. All I wanted was to get a job in a shop or a food stall to earn some extra money for my family.”

I come from a village of poor Bajau fishing people in Langara, about three hours away from Kendari. These days, every single child in the village goes to primary school. Most of the older children go to junior high school, and quite a few go to senior high school. A handful go to the local tertiary college, too. It certainly wasn’t like that ten years ago, when I first went to secondary school.

Back then, most children just finished primary school, at most. Girls often didn’t even get that far. The Bajau people are very concerned about the honor of their daughters. A lot of parents don’t think it’s safe for their daughters to go into the village on their own, particularly after they reach puberty. They say that a girl should stay at home until a man comes to make her his wife.

But from an early age, I wanted to go to school. Even in a village where everyone was poor, my family was the poorest of all. We had the worst, most run-down house in the village. I thought that if I finished school, perhaps I could get a job in a shop or stall in town to earn some extra money for my family. My mother wasn’t very supportive, but my father encouraged me, at least in primary school. Someone always took me to school and came to meet me afterwards, every day. I remember when I had to get a photo taken for registration, five members of my family came to watch over me while it was taken.

Most of the kids at school were land people. In early primary school, there were six other Bajau girls. By the time I’d finished, there were only two or three left. The others had dropped out to get married or wait for a husband. At school, the other children sometimes teased us. One day when I was coming into the classroom, the other kids barricaded the door to stop me from coming in. They said I shouldn’t be at school in the first place. As I progressed through the school, the teasing gradually eased up.

When I finished primary school, my father and mother had a vicious fight over whether I could go to secondary school. I’ve got seven younger brothers and sisters, and my mother said we couldn’t feed them all and pay for my school at the same time. She said my father was sacrificing all the younger children for the benefit of his favorite daughter. When she said that, my father hit her. They fought about it again and again.

In secondary school, I always got good grades. I was often top of the class. The teachers always encouraged me to stay in school, but the farther I went, the more difficulties I had at home. The whole village sided against me. People called me bad names and said I didn’t know how a girl should behave. In my final year, I was top of the class three times in a row.

What made it worse was that I really enjoy singing. I often sang at school events. My father hated me doing that. Sometimes when he heard that I’d got up on the stage at school, he hit me when I got home. Once I was asked to sing at someone’s wedding and went without my parents’ permission. My mother came out to meet me and told me to stay at another family member’s house for a day, because my father was still in a rage. He said I was shaming the whole family. He threatened that when I came home, he was going to tie me up naked in front of the house and electrocute me. After a day or two, he calmed down.

The final straw came when I finished high school. I’d never even dreamed of going to university, but my favorite teacher told me I should think about it. Even my father went berserk when he heard that. These days, there are some scholarships for high-achieving children, but there wasn’t anything like that back then. He demanded to know how the family was going to pay for it. I told him that I’d find a way, even if he didn’t pay for it. He hit me and called me a slut, so I ran away to my teacher’s house and stayed there for three days. In the end, my father came to the teacher’s house and said that he’d sell the engine from his small boat to pay for my education. He hardly ever used the engine anyway, because petrol is so expensive.

I remember setting off in the boat in the middle of the night to take the engine to Kendari to sell, after my parents had been shouting at each other all day. It was in the middle of a torrential storm. At the last minute, just as we were setting off, my mother came running down to the beach. I thought she was going to stop me from going, so I ran away down the beach. But she called out that she was only trying to give me a piece of plastic to cover my head on the trip there. We hugged each other and cried. That was when I knew that she’d forgiven me.

When we got to Kendari, it was early in the morning, before the morning prayer, but my father eventually found someone to buy the engine. It was one day after registration for university had closed, but they let me put in my application anyway. When I first started studying, I stayed at an aunt’s house, outside town. I had to take three different buses to get to campus. It took almost two hours each way. When my family heard, my grandmother sent me the gold necklace her husband gave her when they got married. I sold it to pay for cheap accommodations near campus. For the first few months, I hardly ate anything.

Then there was a university sports event, with music and singing contests. I got up and sang a song and won the first prize. The guitarist asked me if I wanted to come to Buton to perform at a wedding. That was the first time I was paid for singing. I got Rp 40,000 for a performance that lasted several days. It wasn’t much, but that was the first time I realized that I could get paid for singing. After that, I supported myself by singing at weddings and other celebrations.

I usually sang dangdut and pop songs, but sometimes I tried to change the lyrics from Indonesian to Bajau language. I started getting lots of requests to sing at celebrations and parties in Bajau villages. I became quite well known. Hardly anyone else ever sang in Bajau language, so I was asked to record a song for a pan-Indonesian compilation album. I got paid Rp 300,000 for that. That was when I began to call myself Erni Bajo. When I was younger, I was just called Erni. When my parents heard that people from the Bajau communities were talking highly of me and that I was earning enough to support myself, their attitudes towards my singing changed. They even started to be proud of me. I encouraged one of my sisters to finish high school. I promised that I’d pay for her to go to nursing school if she came to live with me in Kendari. By that stage, my mother wasn’t so set against school anymore.

Because I was becoming well-respected in the Bajau community, a local political organizer started wooing me to get involved in politics. He considered me an asset because I could bring in the Bajau vote for his party. In the last elections, he even encouraged me to seek nomination as a candidate in the national elections. He paid for me to go to Jakarta as part of that process. Although I didn’t win a seat, I got a lot of benefit from my visit to the capital. I got to see Jakarta for the first time in my life, something I’d always dreamed of doing. And through the connections I made, I got a recording contract to make an album of songs in the Bajau language. It’s called Anak Dilao, or “Child of the Sea.” I don’t want to be a professional performer all my life, but one of my ambitions is to make a series of video clips, shot at all the different Bajau villages around Indonesia, so that people can learn more about the Bajau people.

I kept getting good grades at college, and eventually I graduated. Since then, I’ve been working as a volunteer teacher at a junior high school and a senior high school. I teach about fifty hours a week. I don’t get a proper salary yet, but I think I’ll eventually get a position in the civil service. At the moment, I teach in national schools, open to all members of the community, not specifically Bajau children. But that’s my dream, to open a school especially for the Bajau. Pak Harris told me about the school set up in Hakatutobu by Pak Udin. I’ve never heard of anything like that before. I’d like to see how they are managing it.

Like I said, almost all the children in my village go to school now. The parents hold me up as an example of what can be achieved through education. When I went home last time, a woman told me that she’d named her child Erni, because she wanted her to grow up to be like me. Of course that makes me proud. I must admit, when I fought with my parents about going to high school, I never imagined that I would go this far. All I wanted was to get a job in a shop or a food stall to earn some extra money for my family.

(Top of page)