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Life of a sawi
By Chozin Muhammad

Ali is a-30-year old sawi in one of the blast fishing groups. Seven other sawis work with him in various duties. Ali is a fish observer. He sights fish in the sea before he gives the sign to throw the bomb. As a fish observer, usually he can only look for fish from a dugout, but sometimes he dives into the sea to make sure there are schools of fish available to be bombed. He works closely with other two crew members in the small dugout.

An observer has to understand fish behavior, sea stream patterns, and good instincts. It also requires a precise prediction of where and when a bomb should be thrown.

Ali, his wife and a nine-year-old son is a portrait of a client family. They all live with his mother-in-law and sister-in-law. Their wooden house is located in front of the juragang's house. The two houses are very close and facing each other. From daylight to midnight, both houses stay open so all family members can come and go.

Ali's wife can go to the juragang's house to borrow kitchen tools or get some ingredients she needs. Ali's family usually spends the evening at the juragang's house, chatting or watching TV.

As a sawi, Ali does blast fishing with other sawi. His juragang usually joins to lead fishing activities. Ali knows how to make bombs, but does not know where the materials are from. They are provided by juragang. Only juragangs know how to get the materials because only juragangs have the connections with dynamite suppliers.

Although he has no access to information about dynamite suppliers, Ali has no curiosity about it. He feels that he has no right to know. It is enough that the juragang has the relationship with businessmen and government officials in Makassar.

A sawi only knows how to operate blast fishing boat and bombs. Once, Ali told me:

"The juragang gets the materials from the mainland. He never tells anybody how to get them. It is a secret. If he tells anybody, he could not get the materials anymore because the supplier would stop the business. Even I do not know from where the boss (juragang) gets the materials. We know nothing. We never want to know. To earn money (from juragang) is the most important for me."

Because blast fishing is illegal, only juragang knows how to get the bombs material. On the island, juragang controls the distribution of the bombs material. It is the way a juragang maintains his dominant role as a patron. Once a juragang shares the information, it can be disastrous because it may break the trust he gets from his suppliers. His upper line supply network may get upset at him and kick him out from the network.

In addition, sharing the information to a sawi will give the possibility to a sawi to cut the networking line. The Sawi may have a direct access to a dynamite distributor, so may no longer need the juragang. If it happens, the juragang jeopardizes his status as the patron.

Working as a sawi, Ali earns about 10,000-20,000 rupiah (about $1-2) per day on average. He gives the money to his wife. She spends the money for family expenses including cigarettes for him. On lucky days, he can earn more than 100,000 rupiah (about $10) in a day.

He will use the money to pay off his family debts to the juragang. The juragang usually deducts a sawi's debts directly to the salary. Ali will use the rest of the money to buy clothes, housing accessories, and sometimes electronics appliances, if it is possible.

Ali believes that he is predestined to become a sawi and he is satisfied with his lot. There is no need to change it, although as a human, he would like a better life.

Being a juragang is everybody's dream; but Ali recognizes his limitation. He has no capital to buy a boat. He has no leadership skills to run a fishing group. He also has no connection with dynamite suppliers or government officials. The chance for him to be a juragang seems to be very small. Since he already feels comfortable with his life as a sawi, there is no need to deal with the more complicated business of a juragang. It is better to trust the juragang to do everything right so Ali can benefit from the juragang.

His sister-in-law operates a small vendor's stall in front of the house. She sells drinks and snacks. Actually, there is no significant income from this business. However, it is common for a young single girl to run a small business on the island. Income from the small vendor business gives girls useful activities rather than staying at home without doing nothing. For poor family, this activity can help the economy of the family. At least the business makes girls feel more independent.  

2011 Chozin Muhammad

Also in this section :

Social Relationships on Balobaloang

Illegal but common: life of blast fishermen

History of blast fishing
Colonial era
After Indonesian independence
Contemporary Practices

Patron-client relationship in blast fishing groups
Life of a young juragang
Life of a sawi

Religious and cultural values of blast fishermen

The role of women in blast fishing

The relationship between blast fishermen and other fishermen




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