The Bajau people are the sea gypsies of Flores, a sub-group of the Sama-Bajau people found throughout South-East Asia. Known for their nomadic, sea-faring existence, the Bajo people have traditionally lived on timber boats, moving according to the weather and tides.
The Sama-Bajau are peaceful people who live in family groups that rely on each other for support. While the boat-dwelling Sama-Bajau of today still travel around on their timber houseboats, they tend to find a common anchorage with other small family groups or communities. The boats are often tethered to one mooring or to each other, creating small floating villages.
Traditionally the Sama-Bajau are known to be uninterested or fearful of confrontation and they claim never to have wielded a weapon towards anyone, despite the seas being occasionally subject to piracy. They would rather flee a situation and find a new anchorage to set up their water village, avoiding conflict altogether.
The Bajo children are famed for their water skills, with many learning to swim before they can walk. Young children take pride in their ability to free-dive for long periods of time, to help the family fishing business, provide food for their family, or simply to explore the crystal-clear waters full of amazing marine life. The Bajo children seem to have an idyllic lifestyle, with freedom to explore the sea and its pristine waters, climbing aboard the other village boats to play with their friends. Their nomadic lifestyle means that school is an informal arrangement, with the focus instead on learning and discovery in the natural world around them.
Many children are also busy helping their family to fish, and support their family’s growing fishing business as industry and tourism to the region increases. Indeed, the nomadic lives of the Bajo people are changing, as the areas they traditionally inhabit are developing with new industry and tourism. They can now earn an income, fishing no longer just for sustenance, but also for market and supplying the local restaurants and hotels that cater to tourists.
As the fishing industry changes and demands more of the Bajo, some have started to shift their transient lifestyle, instead constructing villages on stilts in a more permanent location. Tidal fluctuations mean that the villages are either on tall stilts or some even on reclaimed coral or dead coral, which provides a base for the houses.
Changes in family circumstances, and a desire or need to move away from the sea-gypsy way of life, has also seen some Bajo people move to the mainland to enter into farming or similar industries. Most find a way to link these new lifestyles to the water, maintaining the ocean heritage that has sustained their people.
Family connection is central to the shared history and culture of Bajo communities, and they typically marry within the same tribe or extended ‘family’ unit. Oral story-telling traditions are also vital to passing down the unique knowledge of the Bajo people, keeping their culture alive and helping it to flourish throughout successive generations.
In fact, their profound wisdom and understanding of the ocean may prove vital to researchers looking to preserve the pristine waters and ecosystems under threat from climate change elsewhere.
When in Flores, we encourage you to take a guided tour of a Bajo house village and boat community, with a skilled guide to translate for you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, as the Bajo people will be just as interested in getting to know you, as you are in them.
For more information on the Bajo people or a sea village tour, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org