Bajau, Last of the Sea Nomads

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The ocean covers an amazing 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, overwhelming numerous communities the world is unaware to. Living within the seas between Borneo and the Philippines, are communities who may live more intimately with the sea than any other culture on Earth. With a completely seaborne way of life, these indigenous ethnic groups of individuals are known as the Bajau. Building their lives in the middle of the ocean, often many kilometers from land, and the ocean may have a significant impact on each aspect of their presence. The Bajau is by far the biggest group of sea nomads in Southeast Asia and is spread over large parts of the so called coral triangle, the most diverse marine environment in the world. While originally today only a small number of boat-dwelling Bajau have remained. The larger part of Bajau people of Maritime Southeast Asia live within the Philippines and surrounding islands of Malaysia and Borneo. The Bajau, who live on houses on stilts or house boats, have nearly separated their ties with the land. They indeed measure the time by the rhythm of the tides instead of customary minutes and hours. They go visiting the land very rarely; each part of this interesting community contains a near relationship with the sea instead.

About 200 years ago, Bajau people lived on land, especially in Malaysia’s eastern state, Sabah. They started making their living from fishing and nowadays, they have adjusted their way of life between nomadic and sedentary, housed in villages on the water. Bajau people live as a near tribe community, with ordinarily six to twelve houses in a tribal group. The Bajau will only visit land to get firewood and drinking water, trade for rice and fuel or to repair their boats. As the sea may give nearly everything they require, they live a really substance and interesting way of life. They eat a bewildering variety of seafood that has been hunted by individuals of the community; regularly free-diving using only goggles and handcrafted spears. The Bajau are famous for their remarkable abilities in free-diving, with physical adjustments in sight and breath. In search of a single fish, Bajau’s best free-divers may be able to dive to the depths of over 20 meters and remain there for several minutes on a single breath. In fact, they have evolved to live on and under the water in ways that make them scientifically distinct from other human beings. Research published in the journal Cell in 2018 found that the Bajau people have spleens 50 percent larger than the average human of neighboring areas. Because they spend so much of their time diving, many of the Bajau people wind up with ruptured eardrums thanks to the pressure underwater, and some will purposefully perforate their eardrums to make diving easier.

Furthermore, some Bajau may even intentionally rupture their eardrums at an early age in order to facilitate diving and hunting at sea. Some of the children also adapt to an aquatic way of life from a very young age. The sea and the boat is the playground for the Bajau children. With most being born at sea and spending so much of their time under the sea, many of their eyes adjust to focus better underwater. Children are taught all aspects of seaborne living: how to hunt, cook, fish, wash and build.

In the vast Southeast Asian oceans, there are many sub-groups of Bajau people, named after the place or island they have lived in. Although they are all called Bajau, each sub-group has their own unique language, cultures and tradition. Some sub-groups are able to understand the languages of other sub-groups; with the general native language is Bahasa Bajau or Sinama. However with approximately ten sub-groups, such as Sama and Tabawan, it is quite uncommon for communities to ever encounter each other.

Jatmin, an octopus specialist, carries his freshly speared catch back to his boat in the shallow waters off the coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia.

According to ethnographic and historical data, the Bajau form their identity by characterizing themselves, their language, and their way of life. In Malay, “Sama” means “us,” and is used by the Bajau to call themselves “Jomo Sama” (the Sama people). Bajau, on the other hand, is a term that outsiders called them rather than a term they call themselves. One opinion about the origin of the term Bajau is that it comes from the Malay word ‘berjauhan’, which stands for the ‘distant state of eternality’. According to another hypothesis, the name comes from “bujak laut,” which is a tool used to catch marine life such as fish and sea cucumbers.

Although they live on the sea, they often still partake in a common faith, adorning their seaborne lifestyle with religious celebrations, worships and offerings. With remnants of traditional pre-Islamic beliefs, the Bajau often sail ‘spirit boats’ into the open seas to cast unwanted spirits away from their community and regularly give offerings of thanks to their God of the Sea- Omboh Dilaut. Although some Islamic Bajau communities have built mosques on stilts, other communities must rely on the shore-based ones.

From old to young, the Bajau are regarded as colorful, festive and musical people. Being seaborne, in their opinion, enhances and improves all aspects of living. The Bajau are undoubtedly extraordinary people and they are the ultimate living proof of how far people might be able to push their bodies to an aquatic life, and the ideal example of how relationships with the sea may be so beneficial.

Today, more and more Bajau people are being made to live on land. For several reasons, it’s possible that the current generation could be the last able to sustain themselves off the water. For one, the global fish trade has disrupted the fishing traditions and ecosystems of the Bajau people. Higher competition in terms of fishing has compelled the Bajau to start utilizing more commercial tactics to catch fish, including the use of cyanide and dynamite. The Bajau have also switched to using a heavier wood to make their boats because the lighter wood they used to use came from a tree that’s currently endangered. The new boats require engines, which mean money for fuel.

The stigma associated with being nomadic has also forced many to give up their lifestyle. Being accepted by surrounding cultures gives them access to government programs that provide aid and benefits they wouldn’t otherwise receive. But for the Bajau people, fishing isn’t just a trade and the water isn’t just a resource. At the heart of their identity is their relationship with the ocean and its inhabitants. So when it comes to conservation, it’s not just about conserving the marine life, but their culture as well and the waters they’ve called home for centuries.

As they belong to no official state and possess no official nationality, they find the move from sea to land a challenge. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, the Bajau are at a disadvantage with no schooling, healthcare or access to government-provided social services. In the process of adapting to a land-based life, their unique skills in free-diving, along with their in-depth knowledge and understanding of the ocean, become much less relevant. The younger generations have forgotten their ability to dive to the bottom of the reef and walk on the bottom of the ocean.

Many Bajau communities on land live in squalid settlements. Some Bajau, however, have managed to maintain a sea-faring life and preserve their traditions in the solitude and liberty of living freely and independently on the sea, away from the rules and restrictions that bind those who live on land.  

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