Theses Doctoral

Pedagogies of Sustenance and Survival: An Ethnographic Case Study with the Bajau

Coulson, Jonthon Vincent

For centuries, the Bajau people sailed the seas between what we now refer to as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines on houseboats of their own construction. Adept sustenance divers, they forage the sea floor for sea cucumber, fish, black coral and more, often spending over 60% of their working day underwater. On a single breath, the best of them can reach depths of 70 feet, stay submerged for five minutes, and see twice as well as we can. These activities, learned and transferred over generations, have prompted genetic adaptations that allow the Bajau to survive and thrive amphibiously.

The Bajau are now being targeted by States and NGOs to receive education aid. Indonesia, as a signatory of the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child, has sought to provide primary education to all children. Although well-intended, such efforts presuppose the Bajau are not capable of adequately educating their own children, and have prompted their mass sedentarization. Such attempts to help are predicated on the notion that education must occur in land-based schools, which has potentially devastating consequences for sea-centric people such as the Bajau, for which mandating attendance in land-based schools constitutes a threat of epistemicide.

Such solutions threaten geographically mobile people because their lifestyle is taken up as a problem to be solved, molded to fit with education developers’ conceptions of education. This preoccupation with movement as a problem detracts from serious consideration of the unique learning needs, livelihoods, and values of mobile aid recipients. Instead of learning from Bajau ways of knowing and being, we’ve sought to assimilate them. Instead of helping them become self-sufficient, education is rendering them reliant on the State. Moving people into dependence is not what the State intended or the Bajau desire.

Human movement is complicated the politics of nations now more than ever before. Governments use education specifically to gain control over people living in movement via spatial, social, and cultural manipulation. Nomads and refugees – among the most marginalized social groups in this globalized era – expose tension between two otherwise-agreeable maxims: that all cultures are valuable and deserving of respect, and that all children have a right to a quality education. Because common conceptions of education involve sedentary schools, the education provided to moving people is often hegemonic or neocolonial.

What’s done is done – the Bajau who have sedentarized cannot return to a nomadic lifestyle. They did so to access education that can help them transition their intellective competencies to life on land and survive in new social and environmental contexts. The education they have been provided has fallen short, in large part because Bajau leaders and teachers have been excluded from planning processes or involvement otherwise.

This study seeks to make legible the wisdom and ways of life of communities of once-nomadic Bajau people who have sedentarized in Southeastern Sulawesi, as well as the role ethnopedagogies play in sustaining and revitalizing their epistemo-ontologies. What perspectives and practices belong to their epistemes and ontologies? How are their epistemes being sustained, revitalized, and reduplicated cross-generationally? How are Bajau people sedentarized in Southeastern Sulawesi making use of schools, teachers, and curricula provided by the Indonesian State, and how have Bajau people and wisdom been incorporated into them?

To contribute to the understandings of theorists, ethnographers, government policymakers, non-governmental development workers, inter/national education development practitioners, nomads and other displaced people, Bajau leaders, and interested others about how the provision of sedentary schooling has impacted and could better respond to the expression and transmission of culturally situated wisdom and ways of life of Bajau people, this ethnographical study provides thick description in the form of vignettes that offer insight into the experiences of people in Bajau communities in Southeast Sulawesi. In so doing, the vignettes also support calls for rethinking teacher recruitment, preparation, placement, and retention, school design and use, academic calendars, and more. The vignettes enable this study to explore pedagogical models that have the potential to sustain and perhaps even revitalize culturally situated wisdom.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Curriculum and Teaching
Thesis Advisors
Ghiso, Maria Paula
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
May 22, 2024