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Sea Nomads


The Sama Bajo people.
all photos: JOHN DARLING

The Sama Bajo spend most of their lives at sea but have set up small villages built on stilts like Bonta-Bonta.

On open water in the harsh sun young women use rice paint

Resting on their boats in a calm harbour the sea npmads hang freshly-caught squid across bamboo rods to dry.


The Sama Bajo are a small group of sea-faring nomadic people who’ve lived and fished near southeastern Sulawesi in Indonesia for more than five centuries. They live in temporary villages built on sand-banks or on beaches or at sea as boat-dwellers. They sometimes experience a reverse form of sea-sickness if they spend too long on land.

For the Sama Bajo the sea is a combination of tambah (medicine), batam banang (home), lalang (road), alu’intah (food) and seha (friend). It’s also home to their ancestral god Umba Made Lau. Major rituals centre on the water. After a child is born the umbilical cord and afterbirth are thrown into the sea. According to Sama shaman Sandro Nduseng this ensures that ‘their spiritual brothers and ancestors will protect and watch them throughout their life’.

Today the Sama Bajo are under severe threat. Large areas of coral have been pillaged for limestone; the reefs on which they rely for fish are dying. At the same time Japanese and Taiwanese trawlers are scooping up the remaining fish and destroying the ocean floor with their nets. In addition Australia has prohibited ‘outsiders’ from fishing for shark fin and sea cucumber (traditional Sama Baja foods) within its exclusive 200-mile economic zone.

Sara Medhurst is a journalist and film researcher; John Darling is a filmmaker who made Below the Wind, a documentary about Indonesian fishermen voyaging into Australian waters.


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