For a Living Ocean

Trapped in Modernity – Informal banking, Coastal Road Project and Shark Fin Soup in the Grand Opera

In mid-January, I made a new trip to Malaysia and the Philippines to learn more about the Sama Dilaut and their day-to-day activities. The trip started in Semporna which seemed more crowded than ever before – there was a lot of Chinese tourists, more expensive homestays, one more KFC. The central market was still under construction as it has been for almost a decade.

The live fish market was still flourishing – Sama people were offering stone fish, lobster, groupers and mantis shrimps for sale every afternoon on the busy road near the port. At this time, rumors about the corona virus had just started, and the first cases had reached Sabah. “The Chinese are bringing a virus”, the local Bajau people told me. More and more people were wearing masks in the streets.

One day, I took a trip around the harbor with a local boatman, Pohon. We passed by a houseboat nearby Bangau Bangau. “There have been “operasis” in Bodgaya” they said and pointed to a mountain protruding from the sea. “We jumped on to the houseboat and left the area”. I was surprised by this news since the Sama are mostly left alone on the islands. The reason could be increasing tensions between the Sabah parks and the Bajau Laut communities inside the Tun Sakaran Marine Park. On islands such as Sibuan and Mantabuan there are restrictions on how many stilt houses that are allowed, and the Sama are prohibited to fish in their nearby surroundings.

Banking in Stateless Communities

Later, I was invited to by Pohon to his house in Labuan Haji, a community based on Bum Bum island just outside Semporna. Originally, he is from Sitangkai where he went to high school before coming to Sabah. He and his family of nine are still waiting for Malaysian identity cards. I was offered food, a fish head, rice and cassava. I was also given soy sauce, chili and salt to prepare for myself. Most of the people in Labuan Haji are without Malaysian documentation – many of them are from Philippine islands such as Siasi and Sitangkai. “Asigpit”, Pohons told me about his situation, there is a shortage of resources now.

As we were talking, two men in traditional shalwar kameez suddenly entered the stilt house. They were collecting utang, debts. One of the men had just arrived from Pakistan and was introduced to the banking business by his friend. The other man spoke Malay and he was also picking up some Sinama. After food we were talking outside the house next to a running washing machine. On the floor next to washing machine there was a brand-new boat engine. “It’s mine”, the street banker told me and glanced at a middle-aged man who was squatting by the machine looking at it with envy. “I’m waiting for installments”.

The next day we went on a fishing trip with local Bajau people. Pohon was organizing the trip – but it was not his boat, not his license. Without Malaysian documentation he can only rely on commission when taking tourists to the outer islands. His day-to-day work is to drive locals back and forth to Labuan Haji for 1 RM per passenger.

Visit in Numbak and MSU in Kota Kinabalu

After the visit to Semporna, I headed north to Kota Kinabalu – the metropolis of Sabah with direct flights to several Southeast Asian cities. One morning, I met the Malaysian anthropologist Sanen Marshall at University Malaysia Sabah (UMS). We headed towards the village of Numbak, where there is a big community of Sama Tabawan from the Philippines, as well as a small Sama Dilaut community. When we passed by the University Malaysia Sabah’s (UMS) walls Sanen activated his GPS and signed in to work before we continued towards the seaside. Nearby the community a long line of cars was lined up. It was Friday, so many people were staying at home. Next to the water bridges there was a mandatory volleyball court.

Everyone was speaking Sinama, and they greeted me happily. I was frequented with the question if I can sing Jumadin, whose origin is Tabawan. However, I had to disappoint people since it is my friend Luke Schroeder who entertained the audience in Semporna in a karaoke bar a few years ago. Jumadin himself is still missing for a few years after a Philippines-Malaysia crossing at sea.

Many people in Numbak are increasingly integrated into the Malay society, even if some of them are still struggling to get Malaysian citizenship. Many of the inhabitants work in shops, restaurants, and shopping malls in town.

“If we had lived in a houseboat, we would only have to pull up the anchor and leave in case of any unrest”, a Sama Dilaut woman living in a stilt house told me. She was one of the key informants of Sanan. Next to her sat her 14-year-old daughter who had previously worked in a restaurant in town but stopped because she felt insecure on the way home. Now she was missing her daily meals.

During our stay in the village, we also visited several older women who were making traditional abstractly designed mats called “tepo” – one of the specialties of Sama Tabawan. The mats are usually woven of pandanus strips and consist of a patterned upper layer with a plain under layer. They are normally used for sleeping, but they are also used during rituals and praying. In Semporna, I have seen older women Bangau Bangau selling them in the streets.

Later we headed towards MSU for lunch and a meeting with one of Sanen Marshall’s former students. On the way, Sanen stopped at nearby a storehouse belonging to the university and changed to his formal dress.

“We are working on a program in which street children can get training in a learning center”, Sanen explained when we sat in the university cafeteria. “We want to keep them away from the streets”.

Many Sama Dilaut children sell plastic bags in the night market before they return to Pulau Gaya with their families who also make a living from the market. Others live in the streets under bridges.

Sanan Marshall also stated that the Malaysian authorities don’t have a special category for the sea-based Bajau Laut in the Malaysian migratory Act. However, practically, the sea-based Bajau Laut are mostly left alone by the local officials – at least if they hold on to their traditional lifestyle. At an International Conference on Bajau-Sama Communities (ICBC), held in Sabah 2004, the Governor spoke about the Sama Dilaut as “part of Sabah’s cultural mosaic”. In many of the islands, stateless Bajau people live nearby military outposts.

“However, when the Bajau Laut linger too long in town they might be arrested and deported”, Sanen Marshall explained. 

Meeting with New York Times Writer Ben Mauk in Kota Kinabalu

In Kota Kinabalu I also met with the Berlin-based American award-winning writer Ben Mauk who presently writes an anthology about the conditions for stateless and marginalized people in Asia.

We met up at the seashore where we took a boat over to Pulau Gaya – or more specifically the village of Pondo which is generally characterized as a “no-go zone” because it is inhabited by many so called illegal Philippine refugees. As we entered, I was immediately recognized by people who had seen one movie widely shared in social media in which I speak Bajau, and a group of enthusiastic children immediately accompanied us. We stopped nearby the volleyball court where we talked to people about livelihood and statelessness.

“For men it is risky to be in town, it’s easier for the women”, one man said. “But it is very rare that the police come here, unless they suspect drug abuse”.

After the trip to Pondo, we visited a neighboring more integrated community on Pulau Gaya. I talked to a group of women about statelessness, but some of them got upset. “Why do you ask about IC?”, one woman asked suspiciously.

“Kudat is the New Center for Boat Living Sama Dilaut”

The same evening, we had food in the Philippine Night market where we were accompanied by Terence Lim who is a production’s consultant for Scuba Zoo, a Borneo-based film and production agency who has been involved in many productions on Bajau Laut, as for example Sulbin’s world famous stride under water. Terence estimated that the numbers of boat-dwelling Bajau Laut were reducing in Semporna.

“The bigger boats are disappearing in Semporna”, he said. “The problem is that the house boats are costly to build and maintain, and that fishing is getting increasingly difficult”. He concluded that larger, commercially important fish is getting scarce outside the marine protected zones. He also reported that the number of tourists were declining drastically in Semporna due to the ongoing corona outbreak. This was early February.

Terrence told me that he had been facilitating trips to Kudat, that has become one of the new strongholds for Sama Dilaut boat-dwellers. A large Sama Dilaut community has been established on the east side of the Bankawan Island inside the Tun Mustapha Marine Park, which can be seen on satellite photos from Google Earth.

“There are probably more houseboats in Kudat than in Semporna nowadays”, Terence told me.

The same evening I waked through the Night market on my way home. “Ikan baru” (fresh fish), one young Bajau woman told me while I passed by her temporary stand. She didn’t address me in English, but in Malay. “Are you often addressing foreigners in Malay? I asked her”. “I don’t know any English”, she replied. Children immediately came up to me with their plastic bags, happily shouting. “He speaks Bajau!”. “He speaks Bajau!”.      

Davao coastal road – a Four-lined Road Next to Coastal Communities

After my stay in Malaysia, I went on to Davao city in Philippines – the place where I first got in touch with the Sama Dilaut ten years ago. Some things had not changed significantly– most of the inhabitants of around 400 were still making a living from selling secondhand shoes and clothes, and there was still a group of fulltime fishermen (they mostly use the speargun) and freshwater pearl vendors.

However, an extensive road construction project was underway on the seaside. A four-lined coastal road (Davao City Coastal Bypass Road) is being built just outside the community, and the fishermen need to take their boats through a tunnel below the road to get to sea. The road construction is part of Duterte’s administration’s “Build, Build, Build” program and aims to strengthen Davao’s economic muscles. As always, the inhabitants were supportive of the political leadership, and only a few criticized the road project that will severely disturb the community life upon completion. The living space has already been reduced and a few houses have been relocated.

During my stay in Davao, I had the opportunity to follow on a fishing trip with a few families I know. For ten years I have followed Issau and his son Noah at sea – and it is impressive to see how Noah has developed over the years. It is clear that it takes a lot of training and hard work to become a full-fledged fisherman, which does not only mean that one should be good at diving and aiming, but also that one should know a wide range of fish and their specific behavior, master a boat, and quickly identify potential dangers. This can only be made possible by at least a decade of knowledge transfer from older to younger, and it is sad to see that the regrowth among the younger ones is a fraction of what it used to be. It is also sad to realize that the younger generation encounters a sea far different from the one their fathers grew up in.

Manila – Shark Fin Soup in the Grand Opera

The last day – before catching my flight back to Sweden – I spent some time in Manila, where I walked down the M. Adriatico street – a Malate street that cuts right through top end night clubs and hotels, and poor areas were many Bajau and other migrants from southern Philippines dwell. Even here I was well-known – people greeted me as “the white guy from Facebook that can speak Sinama”. Here, many Bajau people facilitate the nightlife scene, while others sell jewelry and beg for money. Some of them are Bajau Laut, while others belong to other Sama groups from the Zamboanga region.

At the end of the street a large number of Sama had gathered to prepare the supper meal; cassava, fish, mango and chili. One woman told me that she had family in Semporna and she asked for help to get back there. One Bajau man said that he used to work for Smorgasbord & Bar as a doorman. “It’s own by a Swedish guy”, he told me.

In Manila, testing for corona virus was getting more and more common. One of the earliest fatalities due to the virus outside of China took place here.

During my stay, I also visited Manila Grand Opera Hotel, located in the same building as the former Manila Grand Opera House which closed in the 1970’s. On the walls, they display pictures of early 20th century high society. On the menu, they serve expensive shark fin soup meals for 2000 pesos (approximately 40 USD).

The Bajau Laut are still providers of shark fins and other lucrative marine species throughout the coral triangle. Perhaps debt is the best way to make it continue. The Bajau are paid for future catch. Hence, their equipment, household equipment and petrol is still at sea. In the shape of groupers, mantis shrimps and shark fins. And the interest rate is high. Not only for the Sama Dilaut, also for the sea.

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