For a Living Ocean

The Placenta is Thrown into the Ocean

Bajau Laut have been living in Southeast Sulawesi since the 16th century. Originally, they were involved in the spice trade, transporting lucrative spices from Moluccas to Borneo. When the Dutch colonialists changed the trade routes many Bajau Laut stayed on their houseboats made a living completely from sea harvesting. Some do still today.

WWF in Wakatobi

Most Bajau villages on Buton and Wakatobi in Southeast Sulawesi were created only one or two generatiImageons ago, when Bajau sea nomads settled in pile houses.

In one of the villages of Buton, Lasalimu, I met Sadar, a Bajau who works for WWF in Wakatobi. His work is to persuade Bajau fishermen stop dynamite fishing. “In Wakatobi we have been quite successful but further north many Bajau use fish bombs and cyanide”.

In Wakatobi most fishermen make a living from skin diving, as compressors are illegal. “We also try to regulate how much fish they can catch a day”, Sadar told me, “it is necessary because they are fishing in Wakatobi National Park”.

Sadar also told me that it still is practice among some Bajau to throw the placenta in the ocean after giving birth. They believe that the child will protect the sea as “it is the home of their sibling”. You can read more in this article in Al Jazeera: Indonesia’s last nomadic sea gypsies  (2012-10-06).

Born on the sea

After my visit in Buton I headed north to Lasolo where many Bajau Laut are living on small, isolated islands. Around these islands, many Bajau used to live on the boats till only a few years ago. More or less everyone above 10 years old were born on the sea.

The author of Outcasts of the Islands,  Sebastian Hope, visited Lasolo in the last decade and met sea nomads close to Boenaga and island of Labengke in Lasolo. But today all of them are living in houses.

In the Gulf of Togian in northern Sulawesi, however, it is still possible to find Bajau Laut who have been on the boat their entire lives.

Sama Language – spread over the Coral Triangle

Throughout The Coral Triangle you can find pockets of Sama communities, distinctive from the surrounding society, but speaking more or less the same language as other Sama groups living miles away.

It has been very interesting to be able to meet Sama people in Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia and compare their dialects. As a matter of fact, there are still many similarities in their languages. For example, most words related to their maritime lifestyle are identical in all dialects I have encountered, like “amana” (spear-gun fishing) “messi” (hook-and-line fishing), “anga ringi” (netfishing), “e‘bong” (dolphin), “kalitan” (shark), “bokko´” (turtle), “gojak” (waves), “mosaj” (to paddle).

During my next Indonesian trip I would like to visit Flores, not far from Australia … probably they will speak a similar dialect here as well… But that will be explored during another journey. Now I am heading back to Semporna.

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2 responses

  1. Nice post about the Sama and their practices with the placenta. Though I’ve lived and worked with Sama for quite sometime, I still admit to understanding little about their practices that involve the ancestors (mag’mbo’). I was in a discussion about it once though where they were connecting the placenta with the ancestors that they revere. The idea from my understanding is that once a year the mbo’ require a sacrifice that involves returning to the land you were born and offering a financial offering that is usually dropped in the ocean. Returning to the land you were born would make sense along the lines that it is the place where your placenta was disposed of. Sama Deya according to my wife would be horrified at the idea of putting the placenta in the ocean. For them it has to be buried, but it is definitely clear that in the Sama worldview much importance is put on the placenta and its connection to the spirit world.

    March 15, 2013 at 7:23 am

    • Hi, thanks for you comment!
      Yes, the placenta plays an important role in Sama cosmology, throughout Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia … In Wakatobi I met the translator of the movie “The Mirror Never Lies”, a Sama man called Sadar, and he told me that it is still practise to put the placenta into the ocean after giving birth – and this is part of a ritual (the word “thrown” is probably wrong in this context, it should rather be “put into the ocean”).

      The practice to throw the placenta into the sea might be foreign for most Sama in Malaysia and Philippines, but we must keep in mind that the Sama group in southern Indonesia has been separated from their northern relatives for at least 100 years. Hence, it is not surprising that some elements in their belief systems are partly different.

      Regards, Erik

      March 18, 2013 at 3:27 pm

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