Elena E. Burgos-Martínez is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University writing from her field site at Nain Island in the province of North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Here she is living amongst the indigenous Bajo people who live a nomadic lifestyle on the sea, making them highly attune to environmental change.
My research explores how language development accounts for environmental change while at the same time feeds back to all forms of linguistic evolution. That is, linguistic interaction among different groups that share a space shapes the space itself but, like all relations, it is not only bidirectional but multi-directional.
The sociocultural features of a ‘space’ are not exclusive of a place and can travel across land and sea: the Bajo of North Sulawesi populate islands such as Nain, but also the shores of Arakan (West of Manado), Tumbak (South of North Sulawesi), Torosiaje (South of Gorontalo) and even in Tarnate (Maluku Islands). Different varieties of Baon Sama (Bajo Language: ‘literally’ meaning ‘Same Story’) are widely spoken at these locations and some others.
The fishing community of Indonesia has adopted Baon Sama words such as erok to refer to the waves that originate when Southern and Northern winds meet during the months of April and May, waves that are considered the most dangerous if you are unfortunate enough to be caught in between them.
Baon Sama owes its grounded complexity to how Bajo ‘cyborg’ environments have developed through the years. It has interacted with the different varieties of Malay that are spoken in the region (North Sulawesi) and has brought in more than words and concepts that have been adapted to the Bajo realm. A non-essentialist approach to language is needed in order to highlight the processes that allow different languages to combine, which is fundamental to language evolution.
A good example of this would be the term ‘iblis’, a Manado Malay word (Creole of Bahasa Indonesia) that is also considered a Baon Sama word by the Bajo. Why would this be? Because anything that enters the Bajo sphere is absorbed.
The word ‘Iblis’ does not have a Baon Sama equivalent because it is already a Baon Sama word. It signifies ‘sudden twists in the weather’, ‘unexpected encounters with others’, ‘animated nature’ and much more. Therefore, decades of functional usage intended to foster social cohesion will not be compromised by strictly stating ‘iblis’ as a Manado Malay/Bahasa Indonesian word. After all, language is an organic feature of human nature.
Each month, week and day features a combination of seasons that flow in interaction. This flux is essential for the Bajo’s cultural identity and it’s the key to their sociocultural resilience. April sees a season of erok come into shape around the middle of the month with strong tropical storms arriving to Nain Island and at the same time a few Imans (heads Mosques) have died of old age.
The Bajo explain that heavy storms often mean an impeccable person is about to pass away. Being ‘impeccable’ often means achieving ilmu (meaning, Bajo knowledge of all sorts: the minta system, undercurrent changes, the kabunasa, mandi kuat, ‘feeding the dead’ and many other Bajo aspects that will be discussed in further posts) and that requires an advanced age.
When strong circular winds bring frequent daily storms, the elderly and the ill are at risk of worsening since Bajo social life requires a constant circulation through ‘the inside’ and ‘outside’ of the house; a principle of ‘being there/being seen’ understood as an acknowledgement of the many selves that interact; it shows ability to belong, to fit, and negotiates who you are, constantly. It also fosters the constant change of of constructed spaces that constitute a place.
The name ‘Bajo’ is not a category or an identifier, it is inherent and relies on constant change, and a flux of defining interactions, not only within the group but with other groups on the island and throughout the region. A Bajo house is not defined conceptually by ‘the outside’ and ‘the inside’ or ‘the material’ and ‘the biological’, it also includes alleys, spaces and the houses of ‘others’.
A house can expand from the skirt of the mountain to half way over the sea. There’s not a single detached house for each ‘family unit’ but a stream of structures connecting to each other as if Nain Bajo’s architectural skeleton was a genealogical tree of some sort, always growing in different directions. Bajo houses undergo the same flows of change as their inhabitants, an economy of circulation that regulates even the positioning of doors as relations shift.
And each of these structures, each ‘organic’ or ‘inorganic’ entity that enters the Bajo sphere, features multiple conceptions. A single stilt can be called four or more different names within the same day depending on its function within the Bajo system: a tiang turns into a tenge if it supports a Tompal (or house over sea water), and the same stilt can change its name to bajeang if a boat is anchored to it.
Another example of this would be the verb jatuh (to fall in Bahasa Indonesia) takes three different shapes in Baon Sama: gogo for considerable heights; jato for mild fallings; and pekah for the ones featuring a tree in the picture. Such words can also be swapped depending on the context brought into conversation and the audience (e.g. if the story is meant to amuse others, the word gogo would be chosen regardless of the height/if the subjects in the story are kids the word jato would follow/etc.).
Different spellings are also featured among the Bajo who live near the mountain and those who do so over sea water. Baon Sama is not a written language and, thus, adding vowels to a word to make it louder over long distances does not cause semantic conflicts among its native speakers as long as its conceptualisation is agreed collectively through daily activities.
Notable cultural events that are examples of social cohesion for the Bajo include Arisan, a weekly ‘social gathering’ during which each member ‘donates’ an amount of money, then a paper is drawn bearing the name of the lucky one who receives the total. Also, funerals and the ‘acara malam’– when somebody dies — each Bajo has to walk in a circle around the corpse and the companions immediately to foster the collectivism that’s crucial for the Bajo’s cultural identity, thus, death as well as illness is a collective process that needs to be acknowledged.
In addition, each ‘kakak’ (older family member or head of family) has to ‘donate’ Rp 5,000 or above to the family of the deceased. After 3, 7, 9, 40 and 100 nights an event called ‘acara 3malam,7 malam’, etc., is held. During this event people sit down and eat after praying — it is intended to collectively feed the dead during its new state of being due to the fact that he or she cannot fulfill this duty anymore.
Birthdays and weddings also feature such monetary circulation that, in addition, feeds on the daily ‘minta’ system the Bajo have where any item, food among them, can be ‘borrowed’ from neighbours and other family members regularly without the need to return it immediately or to exchange it for an item of the same ‘value’, which is constantly negotiated.
The key to cohesion resides in members of the group being able to fit the ‘minta’ system, being able to obtain what they need through a flux of social connections that blend the architectural, linguistic and environmental, and are constantly changing. This adaptability, this acknowledgement of the space as interchangeable, is a defining characteristic of the Bajo self. This circulation and collectivism represents ‘resilience’ for the Bajo.
Circulation as a fair exchange between environments and their inhabitants also defines how ‘rubbish’ is perceived here too: a group of kids emulate a ‘Warung’ (selling kiosk) using items that despite being discarded are still considered functional. The way ‘rubbish’ is constructed as dysfunctional in some cultures, such as mine, does not apply here, instead such items are considered ‘the grass of the street’ and are perfectly placed as hybrids of the ‘organic’ and ‘inorganic’. What already belongs to the Bajo environment (socially, physically, cosmologically) is far from ‘useless’.
Thus, rather than affirming that Bajo kids ‘play’ with ‘rubbish’ because of the limitations of their lives, we could look beyond stereotypes of poverty that are often applied to such communities and wonder if ‘waste’ is perceived and understood in the same fashion world-wide. The answer is clearly no. Most of these kids could certainly access toys in Manado and surrounding areas, and could afford to own them but a piece of floating cork ‘arriving’ to Nain Bajo has to fit in the system, and be used in very different settings and situations, acquiring a multitude of functions and names.
In my first blog post I suggested that multi-site ethnographic work would be the best methodological approach to the subject. I have now found that the ‘nomadic’ features the Bajo display rely on the daily multi-sidedness of their culture rather than on cultural mapping; the ‘settled’ Bajo are far from being a static group whose cultural identity is grounded on coordinates. Instead it travels and develops by shifting, adapting and interacting with its environment. Their cyborg environments are not exclusive of boats and houses but of all spaces that they cross. Perhaps we need to look beyond the ‘nomadic’ and the ‘settled’ for new forms of combined modernity among the so-called ‘minority’ groups.
My next post in June will cover Bajo food and the sociocultural functions of the edible on Nain Island, as well as expanding a bit more on Bajo kinship systems. In May I will be travelling to Jakarta and Yogyakarta in order to extend my 12-month research visa for another 3 months. So far it has been 11 months of participant observation, interviews, daily field notes, thousands of pictures and videos and such extensive research material can be hard to convey in just a few paragraphs. Thus, any comments, suggestions and further enquiries are very welcome! I can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org (typically accessing electricity once a month from Manado).
Reading challenge of the month: Thomas Gladwin’s ‘East is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll’.