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Sociocultural Dimensions: Social Relationships on Balobaloang
by Gene Ammarell

Along with many other Southeast Asian societies and not unlike most Americans, the Bugis reckon kinship and descent bilaterally. This means that in marriage, both the woman and the man maintain membership in their respective natal families, and there is no cultural preference for male or female children (although most would prefer families made up of both boys and girls).

Since the first modern inhabitants arrived on Balobaloang circa 1870, everyone residing on the island of Balobaloang has been related by blood or marriage and all children were descended from two founding couples. While there are many marriages between villagers, many women and men marry in from other parts of the region. Traditionally, Bugis marriages were arranged by relatives from both families, while each of the prospective partners have had a right to refuse the union. Increasingly, however young people find their own mates, gaining permission from their parents who then work out the details of the marriage.

After marriage, the couple may live with one or the other’s parents (ambilocal) but usually the husband’s until they can afford to build their own house. In any case, when a man is at sea for an extended length of time, the young wife may return to her parental house. When they eventually build a house of their own, most often it will be close to the husband’s family, but the island is small (only three miles in circumference), so if one is from Balobaloang, one is never far from home.

Socio-politically, the Bugis of Balobaloang continue to organize themselves, at least in part, according to a traditional hierarchical system of patron-client relationships that has a deep history across Southeast Asia (ref). Simply put, each individual exists in fluid web of relationships in which status is determined by the relative size and status of one’s entourage of “clients.” Likewise, one consciously attaches and subordinates oneself to a “patron” (pongawa BUG) whose efficacy (sumange’ BUG) is evidenced by their wealth and generosity, knowledge acquired through travel or study, and/or military prowess but usually most of all by their capacity to empathize with others over issues of shame and the defense of human dignity (siri’). Any public violation of another’s dignity is not only an affront that must be responded to by the individual and his or her patron (lest they be seen as lacking dignity), but it is also understood as a disruption in social harmony. That is, the Bugis of Balobaloang, like members of other Indonesian cultures, place a very high value on social harmony, concord, and conformity (selaras IND; sippada BUG) and the importance of the collective (Tobing 1961, Muldar 1996). In stark contrast to the American values of competition and individualism, the ideal of harmony privileges not the circumstances of the individual Bugis but rather the importance of long-term viability and status of the group as symbolized by the patron.

On Balobaloang, for example, ship owners and captain/navigators serve as patrons to crew members and their families, sharing in the profits from the cargos carried aboard their ships, providing “loans” and other material aid when needs arise, and sponsoring clients’ weddings and other rituals. In turn, crew members and their families serve ship owners and captains not only by crewing aboard their ships, but also by helping to help build and maintain their ships and contributing labor in preparation for ritual events. Women too are involved, commanding entourages of their own. Thus, wives and older daughters of client families contribute significantly to preparing the huge quantities of food commonly served at ritual events.

When interviewed, crew members consistently emphasized that their allegiance to a captain was based upon the ability of the captain to attract and fairly share the profits of lucrative cargos but also the respect they received from the captain and the extent to which the captain respected them, defended their dignity against those who would shame them, and maintained harmony aboard ship. In one stunning case, the crew abandoned the captain when he verbally abused them. In this case, informants explained that the captain “didn’t know shame” and caused disharmony, so in order to protect their own dignity and sense of self worth, the crewmembers were compelled to quit the ship.

These same patron-client relationships heavily inform the political economy of the village. As stated, profits from cargos are divided among owner, captain, and crew according to a formula that has changed little for over three centuries. The biggest change came beginning in the 1970s when ship owners started to install diesel engines to augment the power of wind against sail. Because the engine is expensive to buy and maintain, the cost of fuel is deducted before profits are divided up, and the engine, itself, gets one share. Likewise, aboard motorized fishing boats: while everyone aboard gets to keep most of their catch, those with large catches contribute a few fish to help the owner with expenses. On the other hand, if one person catches relatively few fish, the owner will give that person some of his own.

As shown in “Sharing Paradise,” these patron-client relationships and the value of harmony can work against the interests of individuals. Thus, if a disgruntled client publically criticizes his or her patron, thus shaming the patron, the patron will likely no longer support the disgruntled client. Moreover, by borrowing money from a patron, one may be subject to a form of debt bondage and loss of personal autonomy. On the other hand, if the client is arrested for being involved in illegal activities, such as blast and cyanide fishing, his patron will post bond and even pay off officials to secure the release of the client and his boat.

© 2011 Gene Ammarell

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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