Sea Nomads

The Guardian has a fascinating piece on the Bajau ethnic group, a Malay people who have lived at sea for centuries, plying a tract of ocean between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Diana Botutihe was born at sea. Now in her 50s, she has spent her entire life on boats that are typically just 5m long and 1.5m wide. She visits land only to trade fish for staples such as rice and water, and her boat is filled with the accoutrements of everyday living – jerry cans, blackened stockpots, plastic utensils, a kerosene lamp and a pair of pot plants …

Over generations, the Bajau adapted to their maritime environment and, though marginalised, their knowledge was revered by the great Malay sultans, who counted on them to establish and protect trade routes. They are highly skilled free divers, plunging to depths of 30m and more to hunt pelagic fish or search for pearls and sea cucumbers – a delicacy among the Bajau and a commodity they have traded for centuries.

Since diving is an everyday activity, the Bajau deliberately rupture their eardrums at an early age. “You bleed from your ears and nose, and you have to spend a week lying down because of the dizziness,” says Imran Lahassan, of the community of Torosiaje in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. “After that you can dive without pain.” Unsurprisingly, most older Bajau are hard of hearing. When diving, they wear hand-carved wooden goggles with glass lenses, hunting with spear guns fashioned from boat timber, tyre rubber and scrap metal …

Nomadism has always been at odds with the fixed boundaries of the nation state, and over the last few decades controversial government programmes have forced most Bajau to settle on land. Today, many live in stilt villages such as Torosiaje, though the settlement is unique in that it lies a full kilometre out to sea … Traditional Bajau cosmology – a combination of animism and Islam – reveals a complex relationship with the ocean, which for them is a multifarious and living entity. There are spirits in currents and tides, in coral reefs and mangroves. Such reverence and knowledge could be used to conserve rather than destroy.

A very different life.

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