While some of us may have once dreamed of living in the middle of the ocean, the Bajau community have been doing so. Their lives could not be separated from the sea. Spending their days with the corals, perhaps they live more intimately with the ocean than any other culture on Earth.
Bajau is considered an Austronesian ethnic group in Maritime Southeast Asia and believed to have originated from Southern Philippines who later migrated to Borneo, Sulawesi, and other Indonesian islands. These people refer themselves as Sama or Samah, but are known by exonyms “Bajau”. The communities are also sometimes called “Sea Nomads” and “Sea Gypsies”, a term that is shared together with other communities with similar lifestyle such as Orang Laut of Riau Islands.
The lifestyle of the Bajau people is very much closely centered around ocean. Ocean is the source of almost everything they need, and thus, they have a very interesting routine. Through their way of life, the Bajau people adapted to maritime environment. They are known to be highly-skilled divers with exceptional ability of free diving. It is said that Bajau’s free-divers could dive to the depths of tens of meters on a single breath. Their eyes have evolved to have special ability to see underwater clearly without goggles. Not only that, some Bajau may even intentionally rupture their eardrums to allow them easier diving and hunting at sea. It is not uncommon to see children adapted aquatic way of living since very young ages. As a result of their hunts, variety of seafood have become their daily staples.
As they are located in the vast Southeast Asian ocean, there are various sub-groups, which are usually named after the place they have lived in. Each group have their own unique language or dialects, as well as cultures and tradition. Through the general native language of Bajau or Sinama, they might be able to understand each other. Although they live separately over the vast ocean, they still often share a common faith and traditional practices and celebrations.
Sadly, life is not that that smooth for them. Many have yet to be able to find a balance between progress and keeping their own tradition and lifestyle. In some cases, their habitats are being polluted. Many of them face competition from large-scale fishing operations which uses modern equipment. As their lives are isolated from the main center of activities on the land, access to education and healthcare are still difficult in many areas.
Today, many Bajau communities have open up their lives so tourist from all over the world could take a peek of their lifestyles and traditions. A number of community based tourism programs have emerged in Borneo and Sulawesi. Visitors could explore the floating villages and bewildered with various seafood served while being presented with majestic oceanic scenery.
Bajau Community is a community whose identity is beyond the notion of nation-states in Southeast Asia. Bajau people in Southern Philippines, Borneo, Sulawesi, and many other islands, claimed that they are relatives even though technically they are separated by the nation-states boundaries. Bajau people are regarded as colourful, festive and extraordinary people. They are an ideal example how human lives are so close to nature, and their lives gave us another reason to preserves the sea and protect our environment.
By Muhammad Fathi Rayyan, ASEAN Correspondent from Indonesia