In mid-March, the English version of Radio Television Hong Kong’s (RTHK) documentary on Bajau Laut has finally been released. In the film, we can follow three different Bajau families in Semporna whose lives have been intertwined in different ways depending on historical and socio-political circumstances. I was a managing supervisor in the production that was recorded in December 2018.
In the end of April I visited Semporna where I attended the International Conference on Bajau Sama Maritime Affairs of Southeast Asia (ICONBAJAU2019). During the conference, a number of speakers presented papers on topics such as the ethnography of “urban” Sama Dilaut, the material realm of Sama Dilaut boat-dwellers, initiatives for strengthening the Sinama language, use of ethnoherbals among Bajau of northern Sabah, and much more. The proceedings can be found there: Proceedings of the International Conference on Bajau and Maritime Affairs in Southeast Asia
One of the speakers, Sanen Marshall from University Malaysia Sabah, presented a paper about detention of Sama Dilaut in Kota Kinabalu. A recent problem is that many Sama Dilaut have left the life at sea and started to dwell in cities as beggars and vendors, which put them at risk of detention and deportation. As of today, the Sama Dilaut have a different status than other so-called illegal immigrants from the Philippines, and as long as they stay on the sea and do not involve in illegal fishing (e.g. fish bombing, use of cyanide, targeting of turtles and red-listed shark species, fishing inside marine protected areas) they have not much to fear from migration police. In fact, one of the unofficial ethnic categories used by the Malaysian authorities to classify migrants is “Pala’u”, which is a degenerative term for Sama Dilaut and which literally means “to live on boats”.
Ongoing decline in fish stocks, however, have forced many Sama Dilaut to move into the cities, just as thousands of Sama Dilaut have already done in the Philippines. As city-dwellers, they fail to identify themselves as Pala’u, and therefore hundreds of them have been put in detention camps and eventually deported to Bongao in the Philippines, a place which most of them have no connection to since the majority of them were either born in Malaysia, or left Philippines at an early age. As a consequence, many of them return to Malaysia shortly after deportation, and some of them have been deported two or even three times. In the process, they receive the only documentation they will get in their lifetime: detention papers.
During detention they can be hold in remote inland camps for up to six months along with members of other ethnic groups, as for example the Tausug. The situation in the camps is difficult, especially for those who don’t get support from the outside. “Many young children don’t learn how to speak inside the camps”, Marshall said.
Are They the Last Generation at Sea?
During the conference, I made a presentation about the future of boat-dwelling among the Sama Dilaut in Semporna. Researchers and journalists have suggested that the boat-dwelling lifestyle is on the verge of disappearance, but I tried to show that boat dwelling have actually had a renaissance in Semporna and that the nomadic lifestyle is still flourishing. I also concluded that the boat-dwelling Sama Dilaut are often better off than their house dwelling kin.
After one of the social anthropologist Harry Nimmo’s re-visit to Tawi-Tawi in 1997, he concluded that there are no more boat-dwellers in the area. In the epilogue of his book Magosaha he wrote:
Their unique boat-dwelling culture is now part of the realm of the mbo’, or ancestors. The loss of that culture is a loss for Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and ultimately humankind. (Nimmo 2001: 233).
However, the Sama Dilaut culture has thrived in Semporna during the last few decades, and there are still more than 100 houseboats in the region. As a matter of fact, many of the boat-dwelling Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi escaped to Semporna during the clashes between Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Philippine army in the 1970’s, where they have hold on to their nomadic lifestyle. There are also many examples of Sama Dilaut who actually were house dwelling in Tawi-Tawi but who took up the boat living lifestyle in Semporna.
What then are the factors that have contributed to the preservation and even renaissance of the nomadic lifestyle in Semporna? Here comes a number of factors I have identified:
- Lack of national recognition and support. The Sama Dilaut in Malaysia are stateless and get no or very limited support from the government. They can’t access health care or education and have no right to work, which keeps them traditional.
- The Sama Dilaut are stateless but as long as they stay on the sea and in the proximity of islands, they rarely face risk of deportation. As a consequence, they cling on to the life at sea and can hardly look for other means of livelihood.
- The Malaysian authorities do not let everyone settle in the islands around Semporna. Only native Bajau from Semporna with land ownership, traditional Sama Dilaut and a few other migrant groups as for example Sama Laminusa and Tausug who arrived in the 70’s and 80’s, are allowed (or perhaps tolerated) to live in the area. For others it’s is very costly to acquire land ownership or to lease land.
- The traditional lifestyle of the Sama Dilaut plays a crucial role in the advertisement of Semporna: photos of remote Sama Dilaut stilt houses show up on international hotel booking websites, and photo safaris are being organised regularly. The Sama Dilaut community nearby Bodgaya is probably the most well-known “sea gypsy” attraction which alone creates large annual tourism revenues for Semporna. Why would the authorities displace them?
- There is a high level of security in the region. There have been a number of kidnappings of mostly tourists carried out by Philippine militant groups such as the Abu Sayyaf in Semporna during the last decades which has prompted the Malaysian government to increase their military presence. There is also an ongoing land dispute between Malaysia and the successors of the Sulu Sultanate (one of them is the Philippines) regarding the eastern part of Sabah. In 2013, an armed group sent by Jamalul Kiram III, another claimant to the throne of the Sultanate of Sulu, arrived by boat at Lahad Datu claiming the territory. In that standoff, 56 militants along with 6 civilians and 10 Malaysian soldiers were killed. Consequently, the Malaysian military have outposts in many of the islands along the coast, and they patrol the sea regularly. The Sama Dilaut benefit from the military presence as they don’t need to fear piracy, as they did in the Philippines.
- The tourist industry creates incentives to maintain healthy coral reefs. Marine protected areas such as Sipadan National Park and Tun Sakaran Marine Park contribute heavily to the diverse marine life in the area, thus enabling traditional Sama Dilaut fishing practises. It has been estimated that shark diving activities alone create revenues for more than 12 million USD a year 2017 (Vianna etc. 2017). However, some members of all ethnic groups in the islands outside of Semporna do engage in destructive fishing, and there are increased tensions between marine conservationists and local fishermen. If the status of the marine life declines further, more Sama Dilaut may be deported to the Philippines or in other ways prevented from engage in fishing. We must remember, though, that there are many factors contributing to the decline in marine life, such as climate change, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, plastic waste, pollution and large-scale fishing (mainly trawling).
- There are also economic reasons why many Sama Dilaut choose to live on boats. The increased mobility of boat-dwelling makes it possible for the boat living Sama Dilaut to stay longer at sea, as well as to sell fish to a higher price without relying on middlemen and buy commodities to a lower price in town compared to those who stay nearby Semporna or in the islands. For example, Sama Dilaut fishermen from Bangau Bangau must invest a higher price for making daily fishing trips, so called omkos (which apart from gasoline also include drinking water, staples such as rice and cassava, and cigarettes). House-dwelling Sama DIlaut residents in islands as Mabul and Maiga, on the other hand, largely depend on middlemen for selling their catch, and they also have to pay considerably more for petrol as well as for staples and drinking water. In the long run, the economic equation simply makes sense.
- Lastly, we must also consider the physical connection that many boat dwelling Sama Dilaut have to the life at sea, which is also partly backed up by science. According to a study in Current Biology, rocking (as for example the rocking of waves) shortens the time it takes to fall asleep, and also to reach non-REM sleep, which correlates with improved sleep quality (Perrault, etc. 2019). We also know that natural sounds from water and waves increase or concentration and make us more relaxed (Gould van Praag 2017). It is also well-known that grounding contributes to reduced inflammation and increased well-being, and proximity to water or even better – swimming in the ocean – is a strong source of grounding (Oschman 2015). It has also been found that consumption of fish improves sleep quality (St-Onge 2016). Many Sama Dilaut claim that they are strongly interconnected to the sea, and as we have seen there can be physiological reasons to that. Many Sama Dilaut also say that they become land-sick if they stay away from the sea too long.
In Semporna today, there is also a tendency for larger houseboats. The more traditional boats as for example djenging have for long disappeared. The lepa is still used, even though it is more commonly used by Sama Dilaut from Sitangkai. Among the Sama Dilaut from Tawi-Tawi other types of boats, which are not traditional Sama Dilaut boats, are now being used. They are called lansa and motol, of which motol is the largest and which can accommodate up to 20 people. Lansa and motol are typically run by a big diesel engine, good for longer slow-paced trips at sea, and some of the boats are also equipped with smaller gasoline engines for pumping out saltwater from the interior of the boat through a small pipe. A large fully equipped motol can cost up to 50 000 ringgit to construct.
Hence, Semporna is still today a stronghold for Sama Dilaut boat nomadism, and those who live in houseboats are mostly more well-off than other members of their kin. We have to keep in mind, however, that the relative success of many Sama Dilaut boat dwellers correlates with the use of fossil burning engines and higher investments in fishing (as for example large drift nets). Many house dwelling Sama Dilaut say that they would prefer to live in a houseboat – if they could afford it.
Boat dwelling Throughout Sabah
In the presentation “Ethnography of the ‘Urban’ Sama Dilaut: Displacement and Survival”, we were told that there is a small Sama Dilaut community, some of whom live in houseboats in Tun Mustapha Marine Park in Kudat. This means that there is boat dwelling Sama Dilaut in at least four places in Sabah: Kota Kinabalu (Pulau Gaya), Kudak (in the marine park), Lahad Datu (near the city and in nearby islands and, Semporna (near town and in multiple islands).
Poetry Depicting the Traditional life of Sama Dilaut from Bangau Bangau
During the conference, I met the author Zubir Osman, whose mother is Sama Dilaut from Bangau Bangau. In the book “Yang Terhempas Dan Yang Putus” (which roughly “The crashed and the broken”) he describes the hardships of the Sama DIlaut fisherman, who struggles under the fierce sun, not knowing if he will bring back any fish to his family that day. But even if he does, he is still dependent on the middleman, who will profit from his hard work.
Semporna was Part of Long-Distance Trade Network More than 3 000 Years Ago
Bukit Tengkorak (which literally means “Skull Hill”) is an important archaeological site in Semporna. Here, archaeologists have found large amounts of pottery which is up to 6 000 years old (Chia 2003b) Interestingly, this pottery is very similar to the present pottery tradition in some of the local communities in Semporna. At the site, the archaeologists have also found many remains of shell and fish bones. This has raised questions about the history of the Sama Bajau, since linguistic research has shown that the Sama Bajau originated from a proto-Sama-Bajau speaking people inhabiting the Zamboanga Peninsula at around 800 AD.
At the Bukit Tengkorak Archaeological Heritage site, the archaeologists have also found large amounts of obsidian artefacts used to make small flake tools that are estimated to be between 6400 and 2900 years old. The youngest artefacts have been chemically traced to the Kutau/Bao obsidian sub-source in Talasea, New Britain – north of New Guinea – which means that the obsidian must have been transported 3 500 km, thus representing the longest traded obsidian in the world for this time period (Chia 2003c).
Stephen Chia, Professor at the Centre for Global Archaeological Research, University of Science Malaysia, Penang, who was the leading excavator at Bukit Tengkorak, presented a paper entitled “Archaeological and Historical Perspectives on Sama-Bajau Origin and Culture in Sabah” during the conference in which he raised the idea that Bajau may be direct descendants of the Austronesian language speakers who originated from South China/Taiwan at around 4500 BP and dispersed into Island Southeast Asia. However, even if the lifestyle of the early inhabitants at Bukit Tengkorak somehow reflects the lifestyle of present day Sama Dilaut, if it is difficult to tell how long Sama Bajau been on the sea. Nevertheless, the findings at Bukit Tengkorak show that collecting of shellfish, seafaring and long-distance trade have been of importance for thousands of years – thus reflecting a more maritime oriented past throughout Southeast Asia.
Antarbangsa Dance Festival
In conjunction with the ICONBAJAU 2019 conference there was also a dance competition, called Festival Igal Antarabangsa (FIA2019). The competition was designed as a dance battle between different dance groups from Sabah, performing in three traditional dance styles. The well-known community of Bangau-Bangau (which is largely inhabited by Sama Dilaut from Sitangkai) participated with two teams, of which both went on to the semi-finals vividly supported by their friends and family members in the audience – where they faced each other. In the final a team from Kampung Simunul won over the Bangau Bangau finalist in a spectacular and colourful dance show. One of the teams from Bangau-Bangau – dressed in green and white like the traditional djin (shaman) received price for best costume.
One fascinating fact about the Sama Bajau dance is that their feet movements reflect the smooth wading in shallow water as they gather shellfish. It is also said that the gracile hand movements imitate the movement of fish.
Regatta Lepa Festival – 25th Silver Jubilee
During my stay in Semporna I also attended the annual Regatta Lepa festival in which the traditional houseboat, the lepa, and the Sama Bajau culture is being highlighted and celebrated. The festival attracts thousands of visitors from all over Sabah, other parts of Borneo, peninsular Malaysia as well as foreign tourists. Big sponsors, as for example Petronas (a Malaysian oil and gas company), supports the event.
Every year, new lepa’s are being constructed around Semporna to participate in the festival in which prices to the finest boats and best “igal-igal” dancing are awarded. The brand-new boats are mostly done by local Bajau Semporna boatbuilders in for example the island of Bom-Bom – where the famous Bajau Kubang once made lepas that were often purchased by Sama Dilaut fishermen from Sitangkai. Many local schools also participate with the making of their own boats.
This year many Sama Dilaut from Bangau Bangaui participated in the festival bringing their own lepas and decorating them with flags, called sambulayang. However, they were not brand new. In total, more than one hundred boats took part in the boat parade around Semporna harbour. During the festival their was also a hand-out of free food by organizers which caused a rush of Sama Dilaut families at the docking station – and that partly explains why they showed up at all. There was also a showcase of traditional Sama food as different kind of bang bang (sweets) and panjam (rice cake).
Final days in Semporna
During the Regatta lepa festival I also met Kirihati and his family who were anchored in the harbour. He told me that they did not participate since they had no flags. He also said that only a few Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi participated in Regatta lepa since they were busy “magosaha” (roaming the seas for making a living).
After the festival I stayed a few days more in Semporna spending some time with Kirihati and his family. He showed me his diesel engine which he has owned for 20 years. He also told me that he had another houseboat under construction and that he had already purchased all the materials and payed 5 000 ringgit to a skilled boat builder who currently was constructing it. In the meantime, Kirihati was fishing the islands, collecting money for another 5 000 ringgit to be payed during the final state of construction. “I will use my old diesel engine in the new boat”, he said proudly.
Kirihati also told me that he and his family use to make weeklong fishing trips in the islands before returning to Semporna. For a one-week trip they normally need 700 ringgit for buying staples, diesel and gasoline. He also promised me that I could follow him on my next visit to Semporna.
Thus, his life went on, searching and harvesting the sea – just as his forefathers have done for generations. They call it magosaha.
Chia, S. (2003b) Prehistoric Pottery Production and Technology at Bukit Tengkorak, Sabah, Malaysia. Society Journal, 20, 45-64
Chia, S. (2003c). Obsidian sourcing at Bukit Tengkorak, Sabah, Malaysia. In J. Miksic (Ed.), Earthenware in Southeast Asia (pp. 187-200). Singapore: National University Singapore Press.
Gould van Praag, Cassandra D. (2017) Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sound. Nature: Scientific Reports volume7, Article number: 45273 (2017) <https://www.nature.com/articles/srep45273>
Nimmo, H. Arlo (2001) Magosaha: An Ehtnography of the Tawi-Tawi Sama Dilaut. Ateneo de Manila University Press, Manila.
Oschman, James L., etc. (2015) The effects of grounding (earthing) on inflammation, the immune response, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4378297/>
Perrault, Aurore A., etc. (2019) Whole-Night Continuous Rocking Entrains Spontaneous Neural Oscillations with Benefits for Sleep and Memory. Current Biology: VOLUME 29, ISSUE 3, P402-411.E3.
St-Onge, etc. (2016) Effects of Diet on Sleep Quality. Advances in Nutrition: 2016 Sep 15;7(5):938-49 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27633109>
Vianna, Gabriel, etc. (2017) Shark-diving Tourism as a Financing Mechanism for Shark Conservation Strategies in Malaysia. PeerJ Preprints — the Journal of Life and Environmental Sciences. <https://peerj.com/preprints/3481.pdf>
Dr. Kelli Swazey is a cultural anthropologist based in Yogjakarta who researches how religion, spirituality, and politics define society in Indonesia. She was on of the speakers in the “The International Conference on Bajau Sama Maritime Affairs of Southeast Asia” where she presented the short documentary “Our Land is the Sea” about Bajau Laut it Sampela.
Swazey argues that biodiversity and cultural diversity are inexorably linked. In the Ted Talk below she shows how the Bajau nomadic history and their concept of no-border have been dismantled step by step due to governmental policies and prejudice, contributing both to a cultural and ecological crisis. The once nomadic Bajau Laut are today restricted to areas under heavy pressure from climate change, pollution and over-fishing.
Between 23-27 April a new international conference on the Bajau Laut will be held in connection with the annual Regatta Lepa Festival in Semporna. The conference will focus on the the re-emergence of maritime customs in a globalized world.
You can find the program here: The International Conference on BajauSama Maritime Affairs of Southeast Asia (ICONBAJAU2019).
In this unique footage from 1988 a baby can be swimming in Black sea. He turns around, spits out water and breaths, clearly at ease in the aquatic environment. The baby was part of the group around the Russian water birth pioneer Igor Charkovsky.
In mid-December I assisted a film crew from Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) in the production of a documentary movie about the Bajau Laut in Semporna. During ten busy days we followed three Bajau Laut families in Bodgaya, Mabul and Bangau-Bangau, one boat living family, one family in a stilt house and one more integrated family in Semporna. In the process I got more insights about the life of the Bajau Laut – and its contradictions.
A Stroll in the Morning Fish Market
In the first day of the production we entered the busy fish market early in the morning. Next to a huge pile of shell I met a young Bajau man from Bangau-Bangau who were waiting for fishermen with catches of live fish. Every time a fisherman arrived with a fresh catch, he jumped on to the boat to see what they had caught, and after some time he bought a large grouper for 50 ringgit that he tied to a stick and kept in the water near the pile. “I will wait till afternoon and then I will sell it to Chinese tourists”, he said. “I can get around 100 ringgit for the live grouper”.
At the same time a group of fishermen brought two big dead manta rays to the shoreline. One of the fishermen cut the manta rays in half and handed over them to two young men with wheel barrows. Shortly thereafter the manta rays were put in ice and loaded upon the board of a small van. Everything happened quickly, so I guessed that the bargaining must have taken place on the boat before they hit land. I also noticed that people in the market made no or little notice of the rare manta rays. After some time, I contacted one of the fishermen who had caught the manta rays and asked him about the price. First, he seemed to regret that he had just sold the manta rays, but when he understood that I was not interested in buying them he said that he had sold them for 150 ringgit each, before he hurried away.
One young man in the market told me that red-listed sharks were sometimes also put aside in the same fashion as the manta rays. Silently they are brought to the harbour, being bought by a middleman at sea and quickly hidden inside a van ready to take off for either Tawau or Kota Kinabalau, most likely for transportation out of Borneo. Hence, there is a very efficient logistic system for high-valued sea products – all the way from traditional fishermen to end consumers in finer restaurants in cities such as Singapore and Beijing. Some local Chinese Malaysian middlemen have direct contact with Chinese fish buyers and know how to bring the products out of the country. However, it is not yet illegal to hunt manta rays and some shark species in Semporna even though the butchering of manta rays have annoyed many tourist and conservationists in the area, as mentioned in this article: Tourists appalled by slaughter of shark and manta rays.
“I Don’t Want to Sell Directly to the Tourists”
The second day in Semporna we headed to Mabul where we settled in a homestay owned by a Malaysian engineer from Kuala Lumpur. Near the homestay I could see approximately 15 anchored houseboats and many Bajau Laut men, women and children who were selling fish and coconuts to Chinese tourists near the island resorts. I jumped into the water and swam between the boats and resorts to interact with the vendors. First, the Bajau Laut first made little notice of me but when they realised that I could speak Sinama one elderly woman started to ask me for money. When I told her that I could hardly have any money in the water, she asked me for my goggles. One older Bajau Laut man got very happy and declared that I was also Bajau Laut, we were “da bangsa”, one people.
“The Chinese tourists have spoiled the market”, the owner of the resort later told me. “Before we could buy a bunch of crabs for 20 ringgit but now they cost the double”. As a matter of fact, many Bajau Laut have specialised in vending to the Chinese tourists and some of them even speak Mandarin. A coconut with straw in Mabul is now being sold for five ringgit. In islands with less tourists they are either given away or sold for only 2-3 ringgit.
The next day we went to the other side of Mabul where we met with a local family that I have known for several years. The family consists of a man from Siasi, Philippines (Sama Musu), and a traditional Bajau Laut woman whose family originally came from Tawi-Tawi. They have five children. We asked them about the history of the Bajau community in Mabul and how they first came there. The man, Noedi, said that there were no resorts on the island when he first came there and that the Bajau community have been forced to resettle a few times since the early 90’s. While we were talking, the film crew used a drone to film the spacious resorts and the cramped Bajau community which is mostly made up by Sama Musu and Bajau Laut. On the other side of the island there is also a big Tausug community. Most of the islands’ residents have no legal documents, and most of them are from the Philippines.
The following two days we followed Noedi spear gun fishing. On the second day Noedi caught a grouper that he kept alive in water, but when we asked him to sell the grouper to some tourists from his boat he refused. “I know many people here, and I will feel embarrassed if I sell it to tourists”, ha said. “I don’t want people to see me doing that”. That was an eye-opener for us. We had seen many men selling fish in the resorts and thought that all Bajau fishermen did so, but Noedi refused. As a matter of fact, Noedi preferred to sell his catch straight to a middleman even if he was likely to get less paid if he did so.
Traditional Healing Ceremony in Bodgaya
On the journey back to Semporna we were accompanied by Noedi and his family, since they wanted to meet their daughter who works in town. While we were looking for the girl, we met a Bajau Laut couple who is related to Noedi’s wife on an anchored houseboat. Quickly, we agreed on following them to Bodgaya the next day along with Noedi’s family who also have relatives there.
In Bodgaya we met up with the couples’ eight children and their in-laws. We also went net fishing nearby Bodgaya with five men on two wooden boats. Two men remained in the boats hitting the water with big sticks while the three others jumped into the water. They surrounded the fish and drove them towards the net. One man also used a speargun for catching larger fish. After some time, the fishermen pulled the nets into the boats. However, the catch was sparse and far from as opulent as some I have witnessed in Sampela where the same method is used. However, the fishing trip was just a showcase and they normally travel far from the community for fishing.
The same evening, we witnessed a traditional healing ceremony performed by a local spiritual leader, a jin, in the village. The daughter of Noedi who had followed us to Bodgaya, suffered from hair loss and was treated by the jin, her uncle. He put the Quran on her stomach and recited holy verses, after which he fell in trance for a few seconds. During these intense seconds he came in contact with the spiritual world and found the reason for her problem: use of veil and the fact that she and her parents had pledged her necklace of gold. The houseboat owner, Kirihati, then made a lively depiction of that Bajau women only use headgear when they collect shell fish under the harsh sun, not in everyday life. After that, the jin gave her a temporary necklace that she would wear until she had retrieved her golden necklace. That night, the girl didn’t use her veil but when we came back to Semporna a few days later she used her scarf again, and the old necklace were nowhere to be seen.
A few days later in Semporna, I met Kirihati and his family once again in the harbor. I noticed that all the children, including Kirihati himself, wore traditional charms that are supposed to protect them against disease and injuries. They invited me to enter the houseboat where I met an elderly man presented to me as Kirihati’s father. While we were talking he took out a pair of nice boots from a shoe box and told me that he was on the way to the mosque for prayer. The whole situation made me puzzled because none in Kirihati’s family had shown any interest of visiting the mosque. However, the old man told me that he had spent many years in the Philippines where he had married his second wife. He was now a practicing Muslim, and he even had a son who was studying in Zamboanga. He was in fact much less traditional than his son.
Boat Living Bajau Laut – are They the Big Economic Players?
After spending some time with Kirihati and his family, I was struck by the great costs of running a big house boat. Under the deck they have a huge diesel engine and beside that they have a smaller gasoline-driven engine used to pump out the water from the boat at night (which also makes a lot of noise). Consequently, some boat living Bajau Laut are the big economical players among the traditional fishermen in Semporna. A large houseboat and a big diesel engine can cost up to 50 000 ringgit, and they will have to pay more for using and maintaining the boat. However, they benefit from being able to move freely and stay longer at sea. Often, they also use smaller, faster boats for long-distance daily fishing trips, which enables them to make even larger catches. Unlike other Bajau Laut they can also sell their catch straight to fish buyers in Semporna instead of relying on middlemen in the islands. They also dry and salt fish which can be kept much longer before being sold.
Hence, if a boat living family keep enough water, cassava, rice, oil and petrol they can stay for weeks on the ocean before returning to Semporna for another round of selling fish for a higher price and buying necessities for a lower price than in the islands. In the longer term, their economic equation simply makes sense.
Police Raid in Kampung Halo and Bangau Bangau
During my last day in Semporna, there was a raid for drug dealers and drug consumers in the communities of Kampung Halo and Bangau Bangau. More than 100 people were arrested and many of them will eventually be deported to Philippines. However, most Bajau Laut I talked to were little concerned by the raids and felt safe. As a matter of fact, the Bajau Laut are less likely to be deported to the Philippines because of their status as stateless. Everyone who is arrested by the migration police will be investigated by the Immigration department, but if you can prove that you are Bajau Laut you will not be deported (unless you have taken drugs, engaged in illegal fishing, etc.). In practice, however, police will seldom bother to scrutinize the Bajau Laut – their boats, their clothes, their dialect and their appearance will be enough for determining their identity.
In this way, the Bajau Laut without identity documents are being kept traditional. This can most clearly be seen in Bangau Bangau which mainly consist of former boat living Bajau Laut from Sitangkai in the Philippines. Here, most of the residents have Malaysian identity cards today and many of them work in town. Some of them do even have their own cars and involve in long-distance fish trading. At the same time there is also a smaller percentage of the community who are not Malaysian citizens and they are much more likely to engage in traditional fishing. Some of them regularly spend days at sea in small “lepa lepa” boats.
The last family we followed in the documentary is a clear example of this. The man, Joy, used to live in a houseboat outside of Maiga during his childhood, but today he is a Malaysian citizen and own his own tourist boat. If he is lucky, he can earn more than 500 ringgit a day bringing mostly Chinese tourists to the islands. At the same time, Joy has relatives in both Bangau Bangau and Maiga who don’t have any legal papers and who face a completely different reality.
After ten days of filming and one week of meeting old friends, I finally left Semporna. The documentary is expected to be released in July in Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) and on Youtube. I will share the link with you.
From mid-August to mid-September, I made a new trip to Southeast Asia. I visited several Bajau Laut communities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines.
Spleen Size Among Bajau Laut in Indonesia
In the beginning of the journey, Professor Erika Schagatay and I re-visited the villages Topa and Sampela outside the coast of southeast Sulawesi. Here, we continued to collect data on lung capacity, spleen size and other physiological characteristics of importance to a livelihood based on diving. During parts of the trip we were also joined by freelance journalist Sushma Subramanian who was making a story about our work in the field.
We followed on several fishing trips, including speargun fishing and shallow water harvesting. In Sampela, many women collect shellfish, and they display great skills. They have an impressive knowledge about the sea life and can find sea shells well hidden under the sand. Many men are still making a living from speargun fishing even though fish size is reducing. However, on the last fishing trip one of the fishermen caught a large barracuda with help from his fellow fishermen.
In April this year, we were reached by the news that not only Bajau divers, but also non-diving Bajau in central Sulawesi have naturally larger spleens than people in general. A Danish-American research group have found evidence for natural selection on the gene PDE10A which regulates spleen size, as well as for the gene BDKRB2 which is linked with the so-called diving response. The data was compared to a neighbouring sedentary group, the Saluan, which on average had much smaller spleens. The study was published in the article Physiological and Genetic Adaptations to Diving in Sea Nomads in Cell, and gave clear evidence for recent evolution for diving in the Bajau.
After the article was published, questions regarding the findings in relation to the waterside theory have been raised: does the findings support or contradict the theory of an aquatic past in human evolution? If spleen size has grown recently in Bajau, and if we hypothesise that our distant forefathers were also diving, shouldn’t our forefathers have the same mutations on these genes? One explanation can be that genes coding for spleen size and certain diving reflex functions can change quickly over time and that specific genes have changed from pro-diving positions after humanity as a whole abandoned a semi-aquatic lifestyle, and then became more prominent again in the Bajau. This idea should be possible to falsify by looking at approximately 60 000-year-old DNA samples when nearly all humans still lived in the tropical zone. However, if we look at the evolutionary bigger picture the new findings do not contradict a past semi-aquatic lifestyle in humans. We have to take into consideration that humans overall have much larger spleens that for example chimpanzees and gorillas. Hence, even if Bajau have undergone a recent evolution in spleen size, it doesn’t mean that humanity doesn’t have a prerequisite for large spleens. Also, Erika’s and mine temporary data on spleen size among Bajau clearly shows that trained Bajau divers have much larger spleens than no Bajau divers. Hence, it is still obvious that regular diving is of great importance for spleen size.
Further research on spleen size and larger genetic analysis should be carried out before relevant conclusions can be made. For example, it would be interesting to see if other Bajau groups in other parts of Indonesia have the same genetical adaptations to diving, not least since one study, The last sea nomads of the Indonesian archipelago: genomic origins and dispersal, showed that Bajau groups in Indonesia are often more closely related to neighbouring people than to other distant Bajau groups, since inter-marriages have been very common throughout the history among Indonesian Bajau. One study should also look at skilful female Bajau divers, since some Bajau women still are great divers, as for example in the village of Kabalutan in Togian, Sulawesi. It would also be interesting to take a close look at Bajau groups from for example Philippines and Malaysia, and perhaps especially those from northern Sulu and from islands and places such as Siasi, Basilan and Zamboanga. The great free diver Sulbin that walks on the seabed in a BBC:s series Human Planet was born in the island of Siasi in the Philippines.
Search for the Last Sea Nomads in Lasolo and Sombori
In Indonesia, it is still common that Bajau fishermen make longer fishing trips where they stay in their house boats for a couple of days or weeks. However, it is unclear if full time nomadic Bajau groups still exist in Indonesia. I was told by a Swiss traveller that she had encountered Bajau houseboats only two years ago in Sombori, just north of Lasolo in southeast Sulawesi which was one of the last strongholds for nomadic Bajau people.
After my trip to Sampela, I decided to explore Somobri and Lasolo more closely to see if there are any nomadic Bajau left – or at least to get the chance to talk to Bajau people who only recently left their houseboats. I went to Saponda near Kendari and from there I followed four young Bajau men on a three-day trip to Lasolo and Sombori. First, we reached Labengki kecil where we visited a small Sama community but with no recent boat dwellers. The same day we reached the community Dongkala in Sombori, where we settled in the house of the Kepala Desa, the local chief. We walked to the outskirts of the village where there were some recently built houses, and one elderly woman told me that she had left her houseboat approximately only five years ago. However, she told me that there were no nomadic Bajau left in the region. Next day, we took a small trip around Sombori before we headed towards Lasolo, where we visited three traditional villages of former nomadic Bajau people: Pulau Meong, Toroh Gusoh and Marombo. However, they told me that there were no boat living people left and that many of the older “Bajau Soppe” had passed away. In Marombo, I met a healthy elderly man and I asked him if he still knew how to construct the traditional houseboats, and he told me that he and his brother in Toroh Gusoh still knew how to build them. However, it seems as that are no longer any nomadic Bajau left in this part of Sulawesi.
Pre-study for Documentary Movie
After my trip to Indonesia, I headed to Semporna, Malaysia, where I met a documentary director from Hongkong who will make a documentary on the Bajau. During some intense days we visited the islands Bodgaya, Maiga, Denawan, Omadal and Mabul where we interviewed nomadic and sedentary Bajau Laut. We asked questions such as: do you prefer to live in a houseboat over a house? Do you want your children to go to school? Do you have national identity card? Do you recognize yourself as Malay? The documentary will focus on statelessness and how it affects them, and their day-to-day life.
In the interviews, it was clear that most people in houseboats prefer to stay in the houseboat arguing that It is much easier to make a living from the boat than from the house. As a matter of fact, those who live in houseboats are often better off than those living in stilt houses. A houseboat is also much more expensive than a house. Many boat dwellers told us that they get land sick if they stay in a house; they are used of the never-ending flow of water under beneath them. They also told us that they are not interested in sending their kids to school, partly because they think that their children would get land sick but also because of that education is not for them. They rather learn from the sea than from the class room. Even many house-dwelling Bajau Laut said that they would prefer to live in a house boat if they could afford it, while others said that they now prefer to live in houses because they have become used to it. When we asked about their background, more or less all houseboat-dwelling Bajau Laut answered that they originally came from Tawi-Tawi. Many said that their forefathers came from the communities of Sanga Sanga and Tungbankao. However, in my last days in Semporna I also came across fully nomadic Bajau Laut just outside the community of Bangau Bangau who trace their roots to Sitangkai in southwestern Philippines. They were staying in smaller lepa lepa boats, while many Sama Dilaut Tawi-Tawi today live in bigger houseboats. They told me about their animistic rituals and beliefs, and that they once a year use to travel to Sitangkai on their houseboat to participate in the annual magpai baha’u ritual in which spiritual leaders (jinns) dance in trance to connect with the spirits.
The community of Bangau Bangau which is largely made up by Bajau Laut from Sitangkai is very diverse. Here, some of the residents have their own cars and work in the town, while others still make week long fishing trips on traditional boats. A majority of its residents have national identity cards, unlike the Bajau Laut from Tawi-Tawi. Almost no houseboat dwelling Bajau Laut consider themselves as Muslims. However, a majority of the Bajau Laut in Bangau Bangau consider themselves Muslims even though they still hold on to many traditional beliefs. For them the “Sama religion” is a syncretism of animism and Islam, but for most Bajau Laut from Tawi-Tawi it is simply “Sama”.
In total, there are more than 100 houseboats in the waters of Semporna. On Maiga, I could also see some new, big houseboats being built. Probably, the nomadic lifestyle will not come to an end in the coming years. Declining fish populations is of course a great threat to the livelihood of Bajau Laut as a whole, but those living in houseboats are more likely to be better off than those living in houses.
Recent Migration of Sama Dilaut from Philippines to Malaysia
In recent years, many Sama Dilaut whose forefathers remained in Tawi-Tawi and other Philippine islands during the turmoil in the 70’s and 80’s have started to migrate to Semporna because of the growing economy in the area. It is foremost the increase of Chinese tourists that attracts the increasing work force. The difference between Sama Dilaut Tawi-Tawi who remained in Philippines and those who arrived in Semporna in the last century is striking. In Philippines, the nomadic lifestyle has since long been abandoned and schooling have been common. Today, they have a different world view than their relatives in Semporna. I was told that many newcomers buy live fish from more traditional Sama Dilaut fishermen and sell it to Chinese tourists. For them a life on the houseboat is far-fetched and they are more open to education.
As a matter of fact, the policy of the Malaysian government towards the Bajau Laut makes them traditional. No health care, no education, good security at sea and fear of deportation at land – all these factors contribute to keep them, or even make them more, “traditional”. Ethnicity is about expectations and negotiations; it is basically a result of the inter-relations between different people and the state. As a result, second cousins who grew up in Tawi-Tawi and Semporna might today have a different view on the Sama identity.
In Indonesia, the approach from the state has been different. The Indonesian authorities have actively engaged in creating Bajau communities and integrated them in the larger political structure. Here, many Bajau Laut are proud Indonesians, and they are more integrated and less prejudiced than their Malaysian and Philippine relatives. In Sampela, which probably is one of the most traditional Sama communities in Indonesia, one man and his wife recently made Hajj.
Traditional Goggles Still Preferred Among Skillful Divers
In the end of the trip, I re-visited the Bajau Laut community in Matina Aplaya, Davao, Philippines, where I first came in touch with the Sama. I spent a week in the community along with a Danish freelance photographer and free diver. The Bajau Laut in Davao belongs to a third group of traditionally boat living Sama people, the group from northern Sulu (Zamboanga, Basilan, Siasi and Jolo). Probably none of them are residing in houseboats today, but they are known to be great divers. This group is also the one mostly seen begging below ferries and in major Philippine cities such as Manila and Cebu. They have been displaced throughout the Philippines and also Sabah because of conflicts and a drastic decline in marine life in Sulu.
In Davao, I followed some traditional fishermen speargun fishing in the gulf of Davao. Here, the most active divers still prefer to use the traditional goggles. I have made the same observation in Sampela: the most skilled and active divers are likely to keep the traditional goggles, even though they can afford a mask. They say that they are used of wearing the small goggles and that they feel uncomfortable with a big mask. The reason can be that they don’t need to use energy to equalize the mask. Another reason can be that the so-called diving response is more easily activated when smaller goggles are used.
In Davao, I also visited a big Bajau Laut community in Isla Verde where many traidional Bajau Laut animists reside. However, only few Bajau in Davao do still rely mostly on fishing for making a living. Shoe vending and pearl vending are the most common professions in the area today.
In mid-September, after more than 40 days of travelling, I returned home to Sweden.