For a Living Ocean

Back to the Boats!

In Semporna, Borneo, you can probably find the highest concentration of houseboats in the world. The nomadic lifestyle does also seem to be flourishing, as some of the new houseboats are  more robust than many of  the stilt houses.

Back in Malaysia I visited Danawan island where more than 100 houseboats are anchored from time to time. Danawan is one of the most isolated islands in the region and just one hour boat ride from the Philippines; a country which is frightening many people.

“We all come from the Philippines”, one of the Bajau boat dwellers said. “But we can’t live their anymore; some pirates threw fish bombs in to our boats”. In Semporna the Bajau Laut remain their nomadic lifestyle, traveling from island to island or city to city in search for fish and buyers. “We use to travel between Lahad Datu and Semporna”, one man said. “Some of my friends also go to Indonesia”. When I asked if they prefer to stay on the boat instead of in a house, they generally say yes. “We can move freely on the boats”, one woman said, “but we have to avoid the strong waves”.

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The Bajau Laut generally have a very good health. They eat cassava, sea vegteblaes and fish – a diet which can be recognized as “indigenous”. More or less everyone is slim and they seldom get sick.

But the truth is that they can’t afford to be sick – as health care is very expensive for non-Malaysian citizens. “In Malaysia we have security, but we have no support from the government”, the woman said. Without identity card it is impossible to get education and health care. Bajau Laut are literally ignored by the Malaysian government. They can freely dwell in the Malaysian water due to their status as indigenous people, but they have no possibility to gain from the social system. Even if they have stayed there for 10-15 years they can’t get a Malaysian citizenship, as they have no birth certificate and no money.

Still, Semporna can be seen as a heaven for Bajau Laut. Here the fishing is good and water is clean – making the spearfishing and dwelling to an ideal lifestyle. Actually they are living in a symbiosis with the thousands of tourists that  every year visit Semporna, for diving and recreation. The Malaysian government wants to preserve the fish populations and they know that tourists love the beautiful islands and the exotic stilt houses. Therefore, house building on the islands are more or less impossible, if you don’t get a very expensive permission. But the Bajau Laut, on the other hand, can build as many houses they want – if they keep it small.  The waters of Semporna is, hence, both a free state for Bajau Laut and a paradise for the tourists.

The houseboat communities live in co-existence with land bounded Bajau communities. Most nomads don’t speak any other language than Sinama and they depend on trade to get cassava and, more recently gasoline. But most fresh water and dry wood can be brought from nearby islands, like Danawan.

Bajau Laut are facing discrimination from the surrounding society. They are looked down upon by other Bajau groups who have been in school, learned Malay and adapted to the Malaysian society. “I don’t have any ‘Pala’u’ friend”, one woman in Danawan islands said. “They don’t take a bath for a week”, she explained. In general Bajau Laut have darker skin than other Bajau people and bleached hair, due to the many hours on sea – making their status even lower.

Bajau Laut know how to survive and have done so for centuries. But they are put aside by governments and discriminated by their neighbors. They are also increasingly facing problems due to over-fishing and climate change, and who knows what their future will look like. But maybe, as water level rises, their nomadic lifestyle will have a renaissance. Back to the boats!

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