In the 1990s TV audiences in Britain and Australasia got to see the remarkable story of Indonesia’s Sama Bajo.
The documentary Below the Wind was made by the late Australian director and former Bali resident John Darling. Years earlier he’d encountered the sea gypsies of Southeast Asia when shipwrecked on a South Sulawesi island. He called them ‘gallant … retiring but daring people’ living a hard but ‘cheerful and dignified life’.
When Darling heard later that the ocean nomads were being arrested for illegal fishing near Australia he decided to tell their story. Much footage was shot in Rote, Indonesia’s southernmost island in the world’s largest archipelago. It seemed the Sama Bajo’s traditional lifestyle was doomed
Duncan Graham, a script editor for the film, went to Rote to investigate.
When Baid Muin saw the cover of the Below the Wind video she became a mite emotional. So did her friends who remembered life in distant Sulawesi.
Yet the photo is bland, just a dark stretch of water lined by stilt houses. In the foreground ripples around an empty prau, known as a lippa-lippa. No people present.
Yet this was once a home for the Sama Bajo. Though not the home. All their resting places are temporary. For maybe 12 centuries they’ve lived on boats or beaches.
Below the Wind tells of mariners getting landsick if they spend long periods away from the ocean and recounts their proverb: Fish today, food tomorrow. Sow today, food in six months.
That’s changing as the advantages of a more stable life attract – vegetables to break the monotony of fish and rice, education for the kids, consumer goods and satellite television to entertain while the men spend days – and sometimes weeks - away.
In South Sulawesi fish stocks were getting low and the tribe’s shacks overcrowded. So they scanned the seascape for a new mooring among Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.
The landless Sama Bajo are the poorest people in the region and have to settle where accepted. Till recently they’ve ignored national borders, building on beaches from the Sulu Archipelago in the northern Philippines, to Malaysia.
With no maps, GPS or compasses, using only inherited encyclopaedic knowledge of stars and winds, swells and tides, one small group navigated their tiny shallow-draught craft 1,000 kilometers from South Sulawesi to Papela on the northeast coast of Rote.
The island is in Indonesia’s most eastern province, Nusa Tenggara Timur. Jakarta is 2,000 kilometres to the West – Darwin 800 kilometres to the South.
The Sama Bajo had been to the long and narrow Rote before, but only for short stays
Much of the islands 1,200 square kilometre landscape is rangeland scrub used by cattle. When around 100 Sama Bajo arrived in 1990 few locals were concerned.
“Why should we be worried?” asked Bupati (Regent) Lens Haning (left) . “We welcome them. We’ve given them certificates for land, helped them with housing and built an ablution block.
“Rote is for all Indonesians, not just the people of Rote, just as all Indonesia is for us. They are Muslim and most on Rote are Catholics and Protestants. As long as people respect each other’s culture there’s no problem.”
When reminded that countries like Fiji have been ripped by conflict between indigenous people and latecomers who stayed, expanded and became politically and economically powerful he shot back: “That’s Fiji – not Indonesia.”
The Kia (spiritual leader) at Papela is Haji Thosin Badjideh. He emphasised that there were no tensions with the locals; the immigrants’ village and graveyard is separate from the Christians who sail bigger boats from a port nearby.
He said there were about 300 members of his community representing three generations since the first fleet.
The kids originally filmed look fit and lively despite (or because of) their limited diet. Their descendants also appear well; there were no bloated stomachs or xylophone chests obvious, though proper inquiries by health professionals might disclose deficiencies.
Hearing problems have been reported because the men dive deep to scavenge for shells and trepang. (See breakout) Women plaster their faces with burak, a ground rice and herb powder to counter sunburn.
Medical research suggests ocean fare reduces the chances of strokes and heart attacks because fish contain Omega 3 fatty acids.
The men are small and lean, apart from Haji (a Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca) Thosin. “We (Rotenese) have assisted them, but they have also helped us,” he said. “For example, they have taught us new fishing techniques.”
When seeking the glistening blue-black ‘baby tuna’, known in the West as ‘bullet tuna’, the Sama Bajo set 300 meter lines using multiple hooks decorated with chicken feather lures. Before the newcomers local fishers favored single hooks and bait.
They work from light one or two-man lippa-lippa (a term also used by northern Australia Aborigines for canoes) and fish about ten nautical miles offshore. They report no shortage of stock and return with catches of 50 or more.
Survival at sea depends on remembering, watching and analysing the most subtle moods of sea and season. Where peasants see swells, seafarers see roads. The Sama Bajo read nature like religious scholars scan ancient scrolls.
Once the mountains dip below the horizon there are no landmarks. No life jackets, flares or radios, just wits and wisdom to stay safe.
Though Below the Wind shows sturdy construction underway in Papela, only battered remnants of their beach shacks remain, thatched with Lontar leaves and propped by bleached posts.
Much has changed since Darling uncapped his lens. Some families in Papela have now moved a few meters inland where they live in rough cement-block homes with corrugated iron roofs. In a small market women sell surplus tuna at Rp 15,000 (US$$1.10) a kilo.
“Because there’s no cold store we cannot preserve the catch,” said Haji Thosin. “So unless there are many buyers we have to accept whatever is offered or dry the fish we don’t sell.”
Being a Same Bajo is to sail with tragedy. Locals said that three years ago three boats went missing in a storm. No alerts were sounded, no search organised. Twenty men just failed to return and no bodies were recovered.
“This is a village of widows,” Baid Muin said. “There’s one man for every three women and many fatherless children.”
The tone of Below the Wind is resigned sadness, an acceptance of the inevitable erosion of an ancient culture and lifestyle by the assaults of modernity.
Darling believed the shortage of fish, Australian hostility and economic upheavals would sink the Sama Bajo’s traditional ways, beliefs and values. But the killer wave was always going to be interference by bureaucrats
These ocean wanderers don’t carry passports. They have no permanent abode, no address for government mail, no bank accounts. Few have birth certificates. Census officials find the Sama Bajo impossible to compartmentalise.
They can’t remember when they came. They may have been here for years but might all sail away tomorrow. They speak strange languages. Are they even citizens?
In Malaysia some have been forced onto the land. In Australia they’d be classified as illegal immigrants and put in detention, or called poachers and jailed.
Darling believed he was recording an epilogue for Indonesia’s Sama Bajo, but two decades later his pessimism hasn’t come to pass.
Maybe this is because the resilient Sama Bajo have adapted to change, fish prices have risen and stocks stabilised. In addition they navigated wisely, steering clear of Australia and making landfall among the tolerant folk of Rote.
(The author thanks Bupati Lens Haning for land transport and hospitality.)
About one million Sama Bajo follow the sea hunter-gatherer tradition across Southeast Asia. Anthropologists believe people in Borneo turned from farming to ranging the seas about 800 AD.
Because few are conventionally religious the Sama Bajo are sometimes disrespected. In Indonesia, where everyone must belong to one of the six government-approved faiths, the orthodox use derogatory terms which translate as ‘spit outs’.
Below the Wind records ceremonies involving placenta being buried at sea and rituals around the slaughter of turtles. According to one interviewee the Sama Bajo believe the sea is home, a road, food, a friend, a brother and a sister – all enshrined in a genderless spirit called Oma Medi Lau.
The title of Darling’s documentary refers to the name used by the Sama Bajo for the Great South Land, once part of their territory
But last century Australia got fed up with incursions into its claimed zone. The first laws against ‘poachers’ were passed in 1906 because the Sama Bajo were said to be ‘too industrious’.
No matter that they had been visiting the beaches of northern Australia for at least 600 years. They came to gather trepang, also known as beche de mer (French for ‘sea-spade’) and sea cucumber, though it’s a marine animal.
Trepang are used in Chinese cooking and medicine. They are sea-floor scavengers surviving on rotting fish and plants. Enthusiasts claim they have healing and aphrodisiac qualities, though this belief may have more to do with the creature’s phallic shape rather than any vitamin values.
In 1981 Indonesia agreed that the Australian Fishing Zone be expanded to 320 km offshore. Australia gained around 80 per cent of the sea between the two nations’ shorelines and set about creating total exclusion.
For a while traditional fishers, meaning sail-only craft, were allowed to continue dropping their lines in a specified area. But when bigger boats (not necessarily crewed by Sama Bajo) started ferrying Middle East asylum seekers the Australian government got tough, arresting and imprisoning crewmen who ventured too far, confiscating and burning their vessels.
Without GPS the Sama Bajo say they don’t know if they’ve been blown over the imagined border. “We don’t have problems now with the Australians,” said Haji Thosin. “Embassy officials have been here and agreed we are not deliberately breaking their laws. We’ve won!”
How to get there
Fly direct to Kupang from Surabaya or Denpasar. Rote is connected by two ferry services. Confusingly these leave and arrive in different ports.
The express ferry takes about 90 minutes from New Port in Kupang to Ba’a. It’s only for passengers and light goods. It stays dockside when seas are rough. Timetables can be elastic, so check beforehand.
The slow boat (four hours) leaves from Pantai Baru and carries vehicles. Wings Air flies daily.
About 120,000 people live on Rote making their living from fishing and farming. One quarter of one per cent are Sama Bajo.
Surfers head for Nembrala south of Ba’a. A small resort can organise everything from tickets to diving gear at rates starting from US $185 (Rp 2.4 million) per person per day. Lower cost accommodation is reported to be available.
The island ring road is generally good and uncrowded, but little public transport. Unless you’re a flexible knockabout traveller, best plan well ahead.
What to buy
Ikat cloth made by native Rotenese is beautiful and cheap with regional designs. See weaving in Ba’a’s cultural village. Also handcrafted silverware and the sasando, a stringed instrument made from Lontar palms. The music is memorable.
(First published in The Jakarta Post - J Plus 13 August 2016