In the outskirts of Semporna there are more than 1 000 stateless Sama Dilaut. They live on remote islands in either stilt houses or houseboats with no right to basic health care. They also fear being deported to the Philippines and try to avoid the mainland.
They perceive the ocean as their home, but it can also be a trap in the longer run. There are several acute problems facing marine life, such as over fishing, coral bleaching, plastic pollution, acidification, and global warming.
With the current development, 90 % of all coral reefs will be dead by 2050. Carbon emissions have to to be cut by 8 % every year if we are to keep global warming within bearable limits. Corona is just the beginning.
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 Indian-Malaysian anthropologist Sanen Marshall at University Malaysia Sabah (UMS). We headed towards the village of Numbak, where there is a big Sama community of Sama Tabawan from 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.
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 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.
Recently, I released a new movie about the Bajau Laut. The short movie focuses on hunting and gathering below the water surface and was recorded in Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia during my previous field trips. The Bajau Laut (or Sama Dilaut) are one of the most wide-spread indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia and have been living on the sea for more than 1 000 years.
During a visit in London in early October I was fortunate to meet 87-year-old French obstetrician Michel Odent. He is the pioneer of introducing birthing pools and he is an active promoter of the limit of use of medication during labor and delivery, as for example oxytocin, nitrous oxide and drugs.
State of Reduced Neo-Cortical Activity While Giving Birth
Michel Odent has also introduced the concept of fetus ejection reflex in humans, meaning that women in labor can give birth instantly in moments of reduced rationality. It may occur during a sudden movement, in an instant loss of rationality, by surprise; on the kitchen floor or in the taxi on the way to the hospital. The term was first coined by Niles Newton who studied the birth process of mice, and was later transferred to the context of human birth in order to explain some of the birth’s Odent attended as a practitioner. It’s a reflex present in all mammals.
The reduction of neo-cortical activity is also present before birth. “It is common that pregnant women start to forget where they have put their keys”, Odent explained, “and this is a physiological preparation for giving birth”.
The “Fetus Ejection Reflex” is not Culturally Accepted
Odent explains that the state in which fetus ejection reflex is made possible is not culturally accepted, and for that reason carefully avoided in modern medicine. Odent depicts a state in which all civility loses its presence, in which the woman in labor can start to insult her surrounding, scream nonsense and make awkward movements, but this state is also a state of easing the birth process. Few women will remember what actually happened, but they will also forget the pain of delivery itself.
Experts on breast feeding have found that young women who have delivered their babies with a genuine fetus ejection reflex – still in a state of reduced neo-cortical activity – have been picking up their babies according to the right movements, sprawled their fingers perfectly, giving the babies their breasts – without any initial learning. Hence, the state of reduced rationality is also present the hours following birth, and it seems to correlate with an instinctive birth process. “Also then the woman should be kept in solitude”, according to Odent.
The Knitting Midwife
One of the prerequisites for a genuine fetus ejection reflex is that the woman who is giving birth should be alone and not rationally appealed. Odent has introduced the concept of a knitting midwife: a woman with own experience of birth that sits in in the corner of the room deeply engaged in a monotonous activity, as for example knitting; hence, not transmitting anxiety, nor appealing to the rational mind of the woman in labour. This is far from the today’s reality in which chemicals and a constant communication by words like “drink some more water” are widely used.
Odent has also become known for his statement that the father should not be present at the time of birth, because the father often transmit anxiety.
Birth in Pre-Agricultural Societies
According to Michel Odent most pre-agricultural societies gave birth in solitude. Odent give example of some traditional people living today as for example Kung! in southern Africa and the Piraha in the Amazon (the Piraha are also known for giving birth in water in a nearby river).
The fetus ejection reflex has also by accident being filmed by the medical anthropologist Wulf Schiefenhovel in 1978 who made video recordings of the Eipos in New Guinea. In one sequence a young woman can be seen giving birth with a genuine fetus ejection reflex among the bushes, completely unaware of the camera. “This would be completely impossible in today’s medicine”, Odent said.
The way we are Born Determines Whole Societies
For Michel Odent, the birth itself is part of a bigger picture; the domination of nature itself. When we started to domesticate plants we not only started to control nature, but also the human nature. In the process of domination of earth, we transformed ourselves into a “domesticated animal”. By interfering in the human birth process we have also changed the nature of humanity.
For example, the maternal protective-aggressive instinct is universal among mammals, but in numerous human societies around the globe this is ruptured by separation from child and mother at an early stage. Ideas that the first milk made up by cholesterol is poisonous and that a woman’s nipples should be wiped with alcohol in order to avoid spread of diseases from mother to infant, are also example of cultural intervention in the birth process. According to Odent, this can help to explain the foundation of aggression in humans and domination of nature. “In order to be able to dominate nature and neighboring people, it was important to increase the level of aggression”, Odent explained.
Caesarean Section Dramatically Changes the Birth Process
Today, the rate of caesarean section is larger than 50 % in countries as Turkey and parts of China. Despite the fact that the mortality rate in caesarean is lower both for mother and child compared to vaginal birth, Odent is worried about its implications. For example, the microbes that will be transmitted through the vaginal canal to the baby at birth is crucial for the immune system. A natural birth also releases a cocktail of hormones as for example oxytocin that is developing a strong bond between mother and child. In an experiment, a gorilla delivered with caesarean section, but she didn’t bond with her baby at all after birth. More than that, a child being born with the use of caesarean section will not have any melatonin in its blood, which is an important stress release hormone.
According to Odent, there is also a correlation between how a mother was born and how her own kids will be born. There might be a possibility that epigenetics – the process in which genes can be activated and deactivated depending on the lifestyle of previous generations – also play a role in the way women give birth. If that is the case, we might be unable to give birth in the natural way (just like the bulldog, of whom over 80% of are delivered by Caesarean section today), in a few generations to come.
An Author of Numerous Book – a New Book Released just a few Weeks ago
Odent is author of books such as “Do we Need Midwives?” and “Childbirth and the future of Homo Sapiens”. For a few weeks ago, he also published the book “The Birth of Homo, the Marine Chimpanzee: When the Tool Becomes the Master”.
Odent is also regularly invited to conferences and seminars around the world, and for only a few weeks ago he was invited to Turkey by Mr’s Erdogan herself. “There is a worry about how women give birth in Turkey”, Odent said. “It’s good that people get more knowledge about the birth process and the risks that is associated with modern birth practices”.
“Ultimately this is about the domination of nature – and we have reached the limit already”, Odent concluded. But the birth process may also contain the keys to a less harmful approach to nature. Perhaps, the way we are born can change our urge do dominate and control other people – and Mother earth herself.
During a visit in Belgium, I met Dr Marc Verhaegen in Putte near Mechelen. Marc Verhaegen is a leading theorist of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis and is probably along Elaine Morgan the one who has published most about the AAH.
When we met at the train station in Mechelen, Marc told me that Elaine Morgan and Dr. Erika Schagatay once had visited him in Putte after a conference about the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis in Gent in 1999, and that they had visited the nearby zoo at Planckendael with a small population of Bonobos.
“When Elaine Morgan came here, she stepped right up to the bonobos, ignoring the other animals”, Marc Verhaegen told me during our visit in the zoo. “Then she watched them for half an hour, and we left the zoo.”
After the visit at the zoo, we drove to Verhaegen’s house in Putte. “I became interested in the theory when I read Morgan’s books about the AAH in the 70s and 80s, beginning with her first book in 1972”, Verhaegen explained. Since then, Verhaegen has spent a lot of time researching on the theory, and he keeps updated on new research in palaeoanthropology, physiology, biology and other fields. He is also the founder and editor of the well-known Yahoo group “Coastal Dispersal of Pleistocene archaic Homo (the so-called Aquatic Ape Theory)” with more than 600 members. He has also participated in all the larger conferences on the AAH over the years, as well as the latest one in London in 2013 – which I also attended.
Verhaegen has Turned Away from the Paradigm Once Formulated by Hardy and Morgan
However, Marc Verhaegen has since long abandoned the old paradigm formulated by Alister Hardy and Elaine Morgan, according to which the aquatic phase in our evolution took place right after the split from the chimpanzee, for perhaps 7 million years ago, which was followed by a terrestrial phase. According to Marc Verhaegen, the waterside hypothesis is less about the split from the chimpanzees than about what happened with human ancestors belonging to the genus Homo for approximately the last two million years. “Homo erectus was clearly more adapted to a littoral lifestyle than its earlier forefathers”, Verhaegen said. “Their big very heavy (dense and thick) skeleton and broad pelvis indicate that they were shallow water divers, harvesting shellfish and probably seaweeds and other littoral foods.” Similar aquatic adaptations can be seen in Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals, still more than in Homo sapiens. “But it is likely that Homo sapiens became more used of wading in very shallow waters and walking along the waterside, and that they dived less frequently”, Verhaegen said. “This shift can have been due to an ability to extract resources in more shallow water, probably thanks to new technology, such as dugouts, reed boats, spears or nets.”
According to Verhaegen, other great ape ancestors have been living close to a water environment in the past. “We also must remember that the chimpanzee has evolved after they split from us”, Verhaegen said. “Over the last five million years they have become less acquainted to water, but at the time of the split we were most likely living in swamp or flooded or coastal forests”. Hence, the transformation to an aquatic phase was not a huge evolutionary step. “An upright body posture probably appeared because of stepping down vertically from the trees to the water.”
“The AAH is Primarily a Biological Theory”
Verhaegen emphasizes that the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis primarily is a biological theory, and not an archaeological theory. “Our bodies hold the key to our evolutionary background,” Verhaegen said. “That give us much better evidence than the fossils.” As a doctor, Verhaegen has a great anatomical and biological understanding of the human body, and from this perspective it is not strange that many doctors have been supporting the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis throughout the years. On the top of that, Verhaegen is also a great theorist and he is breaking new grounds in the development of the AAH. Unfortunately, many of Verhaegen’s theories are challenged, not only by critics of the AAH, but also of its proponents who insist on a “lighter” version of the theory. For example, the idea that Homo erectus or close relatives thereof were shallow-water divers, and that frequent wading and walking came later during the Pleistocene in our evolution, is still hard to accept for some proponents, even though significant archaeological and other data point in this direction. Verhaegen argues that several littoral adaptations only appeared in Homo erectus, not only a very heavy skeleton, but for instance also a low long flat skull, drastic brain expansion (arguably due to consumption of abundant brain-specific nutrients in shellfish etc.), an external nose, ear exostoses due to exposure to cold water, dorso-ventrally flattened thigh-bones (femora), intercontinental dispersal (including colonization of islands such as Flores, Sulawesi, Crete), traces of shellfish consumption and human-made engravings on shells, etc.
Wide Acceptance of Aquatic Life of Homo sapiens – but not of our Forebears
Today, the wider scientific community accept the fact that early Homo sapiens was often living close to seashore. The findings of 125,000-year-old tools in a former coral reef in Eritrea was published in Nature and reached the front page, and recent older findings, for instance, in the Pinnacle Point in South Africa has also got similar attention – and approval. However, most traditional paleoanthropologists will not admit that these people had evolved in an aquatic environment. They choose to see these adaptations as a colonization of one of many environments humans were living in, rather than an early evolutionary adaptation to an aquatic environment.
But why stop with Homo sapiens? Why doesn’t the community also accept aquatic adaptations in for example Homo erectus and other archaic-looking Homo species as for example Neanderthals that perhaps show the clearest signs of an aquatic adaptation? Why is it so difficult to accept these findings? Why do we only accept signs of an aquatic lifestyle after Homo sapiens had already emerged?
The visit in Putte was very pleasant and hospitable. We stayed up till late night in Verhaegen’s office, where he showed me books and publications of earlier conferences, as well as his own drawings of the possible features of Homo erectus. “I hope that the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis will get widely accepted before I pass away,” Verhaegen said. “I have been waiting for a shift for many years, but until now I haven’t seen any greater improvement. As a matter of fact, I am still amazed that the paleoanthropological community doesn’t accept the theory.”
In a 2016 September BBC radio program titled “The Waterside Ape”, Sir David Attenbourough presents new evidence for the waterside theory that have been published in recent years. In the program, they interview free diver Sara Campell who went from a total beginner to a holder of three world records in just eight months, Erika Schagatay who have studied Japanese Ama divers and Bajau divers and compared the data with semi-aquatic mammals and Curtis W. Marean who has discovered dependence on mussels and sea-snails among Homo Sapiens at Pinnacle Point in South Africa at 164 k years ago.
Surfer’s Ear Hard Evidence for the Waterside Hypothesis
A particularly interesting evidence has been formulated by P.H Rhys-Evans and M. Cameron in their article “Surfer’s Ear (Aural Exostoses) Provides Hard Evidence of Man’s Aquatic Past” in 2014 in which they show that aural exostoses have been found not only in old Homo Sapiens fossils but also in Homo Erectus and Homo Neanderthalensis fossils. Surfer’s ear is a bone growth in the ear canal that protects the eardrum from pressure, which is proportional to the time spent in cold water. The bone growth has been found in fossils stretching as far away as South Africa, the Mediterranean and Australia. According to Rhys-Evans this bone growth can only be explained by extensive swimming in cold water.
Critical Response in The Conversation
After the program was released, critics Alice Roberts (Professor of Public Engagement in Science, University of Birmingham) and Mark Maslin (Professor of Paleoclimatology, UCL) wrote a reply in The Conversation with the title “Sorry David Attenborough, we didn’t evolve from ‘aquatic apes’ – here’s why”. In the article, they claim that many of the adaptations that are suitable for an aquatic environment, as for example hairlessness and increased body fat can be explained by a need of cooling down and sexual selection. They also claim that many of our aquatic adaptations evolved on different occasions throughout human evolution, why water cannot be the explanation. Bipedalism, for example, emerged about 6-7 million years ago while our brain started to enlarge about 2 million years ago. They also highlight the flexibility of human behaviour, and they explain later water adaptations as for example the one mentioned in the Pinnacle Point starting at 164 000 years ago, as behavioural adaptability rather than as an inherited way of life.
But why rely on sexual selection? What is attractive in generally what is viable in terms of survival. Hence, if humans started to like hairless bodies and more fatty breasts, it was rather because these characteristics were evolutionary useful, not only that they were considered beautiful. And is it really a problem that different characteristics have evolved on different occasions? The increase of brain size in Homo Erectus is probably much linked to the emergence of deep water Rift lakes that enabled increased feeding from aquatic resources. Hence, the aquatic phase in human evolution was not something that just took place many millions ago right after we left the trees, it has been influencing our evolution till the very emergence of Homo Sapiens.
Misleading and Deep-rooted Criticism against “Pseudo-science” and lack of Fossil Evidence
Bluntly, Roberts and Maslin also criticise the theory for being “pseudo-science” as is does not make any falsifiable predictions, of course irritating many of the researchers outside the area of palaeoanthropology who respectively have found strong evidence for an aquatic past in the fields of for example human physiology, obstetrics and otorhinolaryngology. In a falsifiable experiment, it has also been shown that vernix caseosa, the white substance found coating the skin of new-born human babies is likely to be an adaptation to entering water soon after being born. Further, obviously without listening carefully to the BBC program, Roberts and Maslin also claim that there is no fossil evidence to support the waterside hypothesis even after the discovery of surfer’s ear in Homo Erectus, as well as predation and preparation of very large catfish in Turkana basin at two million years ago, and the fact that literally all well-known fossils as Lucy and Selam have been found in river sediments. Lucy was found next to fossilised crocodile and turtle eggs.
Some of the researchers who participated in the program responded to the criticism from Roberts and Maslin here: A reply to Alice Roberts and Mark Maslin: Our ancestors may indeed have evolved at the shoreline – and here is why…
The Scientific Evolutionary Story of Man is Closely Related to our Belief in Development and Constant Growth
It is sad that the Aquatic Ape/Waterside theory since long has been misunderstood and rejected without further thought. This is also being reflected in other books and magazines dealing with human evolution. Mostly, the savannah or mosaic theory are taken for granted, and forms a basis for further reasoning. This is also the case with the great selling author Yuval Noah Harari, who has written the books Homo Sapiens and Homo Deus. When he talks about our evolutionary past he always relates to the savannah, even though there no longer is any savanna theory out there. Hence, many scholars adapt to the paradigm set by the paleoanthropologists, but which is false. We also have to keep in mind that the concept of human evolution is closely connected to our belief in development and growth. The generally accepted evolutionary story of Homo Sapiens is in fact the scientific creation myth of man, and it repeatedly depicts a human ancestor who were living in a diverse mosaic environment always eager to adapt to new circumstances using an emerging intellect and creativity, and not it’s bodily functions. There is thus a red thread between myth of human evolution and today’s pursuit of constant growth.
The Waterside Theory Requires Another Story of Human Evolution
But the aquatic ape theory tells us another story: here most human characteristics can be explained in relation to a specific biotope: the waterside. However, this idea can’t be accepted by the paleo anthropologists because It implies another creation myth that does not go hand in hand with the idea of development. Hence, by strengthening the waterside theory, the proponents of the theory just make it more inappropriate in the anthropological community. That’s why they compare the theory with the mythological hydra: if you cut off one head, two new ones grow out.
The only solution to this dilemma is to accept the fact that humans during evolution were nothing special. We were not the masterpiece of creation. We were just one animal among others. We ate shellfish that we collected in low tide or by diving. We were walking, wading and swimming long distances along the shore lines. We gave birth to the children in water. And, most importantly, we were not creative engineers, who always came up with new ideas for survival. There was no need for constant invention – because their world was never changing as rapidly it does today. What was important to our ancestors was to learn the techniques of survival that were already in use. What was important to our ancestors was to learn the techniques that were already in use, ranging from tool manufacturing, motor skills and resource utilization. They also inherited a profound knowledge about edible plants and marine resources. As a matter of fact, if we look at the tools used by our human forefathers we can see that they were made in nearly identical ways over long periods of time. The stability and the conservatism in the tool making traditions as for example Oldowan stretching from 2.6 million years BP to 1.7 million years BP, Acheulean stretching from 1.76 million years BP to 100 thousand years BP and Middle Stone Age (MSA) starting around 280,000 years ago and ended around 50–25,000 years ago have been extremely conservative over hundreds of thousands of years. Where were all the innovations? And why did the early group of Homo Sapiens that made it all the way to Israel around 130 – 85 thousand years ago not out conquer the Neandertals? Why were the same caves inhabited alternately by both Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals before Homo Sapiens finally disappeared from the area?
In fact, what distinguished man throughout history was rather an extremely precise handwork, a strict repetition of long series of complex hand movements; or in other words: a repetition of already acquired technology. And not a constant flow of inventions and change.
A New Paradigm Which is not Based on the Idea of Development is Required
We must accept a new paradigm – that humans were not ingenious creators but rather extremely skilled imitators – and I am convinced that this paradigm will grow in popularity when we fully realise the destructive impact humanity and rationality have on this earth. Soon, the believe in development will not lay the foundation of the scientific creation story of man.
But then, what happened? Why did Homo Sapiens finally change and start to migrate to the most diverse environments? Yuval Noah Harari talks about a cognitive revolution that took place approximately 70 000 years ago enabling us to organize people on a larger scale in relation to a common shared world view. The revolution also led us to manufacture more advanced tools, create more diverse art and hunt on a large scale. Yuval Noah Harari argues that changes in our DNA enabled this change. Again, we can see the strong faith in the connection with human evolution and today’s growth, and the conviction that today’s humans reflects the inner core of our DNA. In other words, the paradigm assumes that we are meant to be geniuses.
But can small changes in brain make that difference? And if so, what was the purpose of our large brains that we had as early as 200 000 years ago despite not creating any visible inventions?
We Must Rethink our Brain and Language
There is, as I see it, only one possible answer to this dilemma. The creative capacity of man throughout most of our evolution was latent. It was a part of our brain and potential, but not utilized. It evolved, but as the other side of the coin. The main function of the growing brain was rather to repeat earlier invented behaviour, not to start the day by coming up with an ingenious idea about luring a big prey. We also must keep in mind that tool management and language are located in the same part of the brain and closely related to each other. Hence, the function of this part of the brain was to cement behaviour and movements, to master the art of reappearance. But when the humans had to leave their tropical environment because of climate change – as in South Africa approximately 100 000 years ago – this language lost its grip and turned creative. In other words, maybe the brain in its essence is anti-development. That, I am sure, will be the paradigm of tomorrow.
I recorded the following video during my trip to Kabalutan, Togian, Indonesia, in February this year. The octopus was caught with a speargun and lured with a fake octopus.
Bajo in Kabalutan still stick to their traditional fishing methods while the waters around them are being depleted by big commercial fishing vessels.
Between March 23-26 I attended the 2nd International conference on Bajau/Sama’ Diaspora and maritime Southeast Asian cultures in Semporna. It was an interesting conference with skilled scholars who presented papers about long epic songs among Indonesian Bajo (iko-iko), more than 3 000 years old archaeological sites in Semporna and much more.
Presentation on Sama Dilaut Challenges
During the conference, I made a presentation about the contemporary challenges facing Sama Dilaut in both Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia and discussed possible solutions to the crisis. Sama Dilaut are facing a variety of problems, as for example indebtedness, reduced fish stocks, lack of ID:s and market distortion, and there is no easy fix. You can see my Power Point-presentation from the conference here: Sama Dilaut as Guardians of the Sea. My conference paper will be published later.
Another problem that are facing Sama Dilaut in Sabah are new regulations on use of engines. Many of the smaller engines used to be put inside the boat are now illegal and as a consequence many more Sama people are now using sails than before. The new regulaitons have been in place for little more than a year and has made search for livelihood increasingly difficult for many Sama Dilaut.
In the conference, archaeologist Dr. Stephen Chia presented findings of old pottery stoves on the archaeological site Bukit Tengkorak that is more than 3 000 years old and has more or less the same appearance as present day pottery stoves made by Sama people. This might mean that Sama people have been living in the area for millennia, or perhaps they did learn the handicraft technique of people who were already living there.
Few Sama Dilaut Attended the Conference
The conference in Semporna was truly international, with Sama people from both from Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia attending the conference. It was great to see this mixture of culture and language and that the bonds between the Sama groups in the different countries gets stronger. I also came to realize that Central Sinama (widely spoken in Philippines and Malaysia) and Indonesian Bajo are more closely related than I previously thought. I also got to know that there is a quite big Sama Simunul community in London, which I might pay a visit.
However, very few Sama Dilaut did attend the conference. Some Sama people with their roots in Sitangkai attended, but no Sama Dilaut from Zamboanga or Tawi-Tawi. And no one who actually lives on the houseboats today in Semporna was there – and they knew nothing about it.
The conference also attracted other Sama speaking western people from the Philippines, as for example Luke Schroeder, who runs the website sinama.org. It was the first time that so many “Melikan” (westerner) Sinama speakers gathered in Semporna to the local’s great delight.
Traditional Artefacts and Igal Festival
The conference took place in the Tun Sukaran Muesum avenue, where a lot of traditional Sama fishing equipment and musical instruments can be found, as for example different kinds of pana (spear guns) and kuling tangan (a kind of xylophone still played by the Sama). In the evenings, we joined the Igal festival where dance groups from Tawi-Tawi, Semporna, Kota Kinabalu and Manila participated. There was also a competition with two different competition classes, traditional igal and modern igal. A group from Bangaw Bangaw won in the traditional genre.
Facebook Video with more than 400 000 views
After the conference, I stayed in Semporna for almost a week, and I realised that I have become a well-known figure in the area after the release of a Facebook movie from January this year in which I speal Central Sinama – the video now has more than 400 000 views.
During these days, I visited the communities of Labuan Haji, Bangaw Bangaw and Labuan Haji where many Sama Dilaut people without legal papers reside. I also visited some of the outer islands in the region where I met with Sama peoplewho are residing in their houseboats. I was joined by the American film makers Marlena Skrobe and Alice Bungan who are making a documentary about Sama Dilaut.
Also during this trip, I visited Mabul where I talked to Sulbin, the famous diver who walks on the sea floor in BBC:s movie “Sea bed hunting on one breath”. I asked him about his eardrums and he said that he had broken them for a long time ago “abostak na talingaku”, he said. He also said that it was very painful but that it is easy to harvest the sea floor after it’s done. In Mabul, I also identified the girl who saves her boat and help tourist children in another well-known video on Youtube. The girl’s name is Sial and she still lives in a houseboat outside of Mabul.
Here comes my Photo Phook about Sama Dilaut as PDF: Sama Dilaut – People of the Sea. Over the years, I have distributed approximately 50 copies of the book, which is not for sale but given to people and organizations I meet.
At the moment, I am working on a new updated book that will touch more on Sama Dilaut’s culture and challenges as well as different fishing techniques. It will also contain my most recent photos.
After the trip to Indonesia I made a short stop in Hong Kong on the way back to Sweden, where I met web designer Albert Chak whom I met in the Human Evolution conference in London in 2013. He has a great interest in the Aquatic Ape Theory and has made two very informative posters on the matter, after carefully have studied the work of scientists in the field. In two intense days, we discussed different aspects of the theory, as for example it’s health implications and the emergence of speech. We also discussed how we can promote the theory among a larger audience.
My plan is to meet with many proponents of the theory around the world in the coming years as well as baby swimming centres and water birth institutions.
On March 23-27 the 2nd International conference on Bajau/Sama Diaspora and Maritime Southeast Asian Cultures will be held in Semporna, Malaysia. The conference will be about Sama Dilaut culture, sacred places, maritime lifestyle and migration.
I will present a paper on migration in which I discuss two possible solutions on the Sama migration crisis, derived from extensive field trips in Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. I argue that the crisis is part of an international problem facing coastal communities throughout the world, and claim that we should reclaim the concept of Sama Dilaut as guardians of the sea. Positive examples can be found in Sampela where Sama fishermen lead a traditional lifestyle within a national park and in Davao were Sama fishermen have been recruited as “Bantay Laut”, with the task of collecting plastic waste and report illegal fishing.
From the end of December 2016 to the beginning of February 2017 I travelled in Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia where I visited several Sama Dilaut communities. I talked to them about their daily lives, followed fishing and continued to learn the basics of two of their dialects, Central Sinama and Indonesian Bajo.
Noah – one of the last young boys who make a living from spearfishing in Davao
The trip started in Matina Aplaya in the outskirts of the metropolis Davao City in southern Philippines. Fish is on the decline and most people in the village make a living from vending of pearls, second hand clothes and shoes. However, a few families still make a living from the sea, and they are incredible divers.
I have been visiting Matina Aplaya every year since 2010 and I have always been accompanied by Issau and his son Noah. Noah is one of the few boys in the village who has grown up becoming a skin diver along with his father. On daily fishing expeditions, they spear fish and collect sea urchins, sea shells and clams in the coral reefs surrounding the town. It is fascinating to see that Noah has grown up to become a skilled fisherman who contributes to the household with his spear gun.
Zamboanga – Sama Dilaut resettlement after the 2013 fire
In 2013, the outskirts of Zamboanga were struck by a fire that destroyed thousands of houses and displaced thousands of Sama Dilaut and Tausug people. For months, they were living in a temporary camp in a sport arena close to the town centre.
After my visit in Davao, I made a two-day stopover in Zamboanga in western Mindanao before travelling to Tawi-Tawi. I visited some newly constructed villages set up by NGO:s and local authorities exclusively for the Sama, and many of the houses have been built in a traditional way. However, the daily life of many Sama Dilaut in Zamboanga is tough and it is getting harder and harder to make a living from the ocean. Many people are begging in the harbour. Yet others have fled to other cities in the Philippines.
Sitangkai – traditional dance in the Venice of the south
Despite recent kidnapping incidents in the Sulu I decided to travel to Tawi-Tawi in southwestern Philippines. I visited the Sama Study Center and the Marine museum in Tawi-Tawi where I met Rasul M. Sabal, the museum director. He has a keen interest in Sama Dilaut culture and show sincere concern with their challenges.
While in Tawi-Tawi I took the opportunity to pay a visit to Sitangkai along with Rasul M. Sabal and two policemen. Over the last years, very few foreigners have been in the area and I was fortunate to be able to visit the legendary community where thousands of people live in what is called the “Venice of the south” next to a tiny piece of land.
In Sitangkai, Sama elders performed religious dance that is normally performed during the magpai baha’u ceremony, an annual ritual taking place once a year in community (this year it will be held in May and it attracts Sama people from all over Sulu and Sabah). It was great to experience their hospitality and kindness!
I came to know that the interaction between Sabah and southern Philippines is intense despite stricter migration policies on the Malaysian side, and boats are heading between the locations more or less every night. In Sitangkai, I also saw how octopuses were shipped on a large scale to Tawi-Tawi and further to Zamboanga and Manila. However, the production of sea weeds has dropped due to reduced market prices.
After Tawi-Tawi, the initial plan was to take a ferry to Semporna, but the ferry company had lost its license so I took another ferry going back to Zamboanga instead. In the harbour of Bongao, more than 20 Sama Dilaut children were diving for coins, displaying great skills.
On the trip back to Zamboanga, I met two Sama brothers from Tawi-Tawi who were on their way to Palawan to join a fishing crew going deep in the South China Sea. They told me that they usually made use of explosives and compressors during these trips, and that the expeditions used to last for about one month. I asked them about their eardrums, and they said that they had broken them. Then, I asked them about their hearing ability, and they told me that their hearing was okay but that they had problems localising sounds. The brothers’ story is interesting since it has been unclear whether Sama fishermen break their eardrums or not. I would say that most the Sama Dilaut divers permanently rupture their eardrums, either on purpose or accidentally, and they take medicine in the case of infection. However, some fishermen do also equalize their ears and some may have hands free techniques for doing so.
When the ferry arrived in Zamboanga day after, the scene changed. Nearly 100 Sama begged for money in the harbour, including elders, and the atmosphere was more tense than in Bongao. It got obvious that life is very difficult in Zamboanga, and it is not surprising that so many Sama Dilaut are now roaming the cities of Manila, Cebu and other Philippine cities.
Meeting with Sulbin on Mabul
After the trip to Sulu, I made a short stop in Semporna where I went to Mabul to meet the Sama community there. I was lucky to meet Sulbin – the diver who walks on the sea floor for nearly two minutes in a widespread BBC production. He told me that he had just come back from seasonal work in Kota Kinabalu. Hence, also the most skilled fishermen might choose to make a living in the job market rather than make their own fishing trips in the region!
However, in Semporna many Sama Dilaut still live in houseboats and they roam the many islands in search of fish, sea shells, clams, sea urchins and so on. Many of the more traditional Sama have no option but to continue extracting resources from the ocean.
Sama Dilaut spear-gun fishing women Wakatobi
After the short stop in Malaysia, I went on to Makassar in Indonesia where I met up with Professor Erika Schagatay from Mid-Sweden University, for our third trip together. We headed towards the island of Buton in southern Sulawesi where we spent a few days in the village of Topa (the sama village where Erika Schagatay first came in contact with Sama people in 1988). In the village, we followed fishing, talked to the people and made physiological research on Sama divers. For example, we measured the diver’s lung capacity, spleen size and feet size.
After the stay in Topa, we took a ferry to Wangi-Wangi in the Wakatobi island group. We spent one day in Wangi-Wangi before we visited the village of Samepla further out in the archipelago, where we spent four days. Sampela is located more than one hundred meters from the island of Kaledupa and have got attention in several film projects throughout the years, in for example BBC:s series “Hunters of the South Seas” and the movie “The Mirror Never Lies”. During our stay in the village, we joined a group of women spearfishing, and it was fascinating to see their acquaintance with the ocean. We also followed fishing with Tadi, a 70-year-old fisherman who is still an incredible fisherman. He was the most successful fisherman during our trips, outperforming much younger spear gun fishermen. We also got the opportunity to measure Tadi’s spleen, and it turned out that his spleen is much bigger than peoples at the same age and with the same body size, and whom do not make a living from diving. The spleen is a very critical organ for experienced divers, since it consists of a high concentration of blood cells that can be released under pressure.
Also in Sampela, life is getting more and more difficult because of decline in fish. In the community, there is also a problem of indebtedness and large interest rates. Hence, many Sama fishermen are forced to increase fishing efforts despite recent decline in marine resources. Or in other words, they live on resources yet to be extracted.
Sampela is located within the Wakatobi National Park, but nevertheless, too little is done to prevent over-exploitation of the area. Big fishing boats enter the waters even though only small scale fishing methods are allowed. Hence, more must be done to reinforce the park regulations and to protect the area and the people living there.
Kabalutan – a pregnant woman showing great diving skills
My last visit in Indonesia took place in the community of Kabalutan in the Gulf of Tomini, central Sulawesi. Also this community is known from a few TV productions. Here, BBC produced a short documentary about Sama Dilaut with Tanya Streeter in 2007, in which young Sama children dive 12 meters repeatedly displaying great skills. This is also the place where Svea Andersson’s depicts a eight month pregnant woman diving for shell fish in the movie “Sulawesi, the last sea nomads”.
Along with two Sama families, I followed on a pongka fishing trip – a fishing trip at sea lasting for a few days. We stayed two nights at sea, collecting shell fish and spear-gunned fish. Among those who followed were 17 year old Muspang, the youngest boy in BBC:s movie with Tanya Streeter He is already a father and a great diver. However, I was more impressed by his mother, the same woman that was highlighted in Svea Andersson’s movie. Again pregnant, she was diving up to eight meters in search for shell fish and clams, as well as spear gun fishing. She is one of the last free diving Sama women with great diving abilities; one of the few remaining in not only Kabalutan but most likely in most Sama communities throughout Southeast Asia.
However, the amount of large commercial fish in on the decline also in Kabalutan, and it will be difficult for Sama people to sustain a living at the sea. Shell fish and octopus are still in quite big numbers since they mostly are being extracted using traditional fishing methods including diving, but other fish are rare. Who knows what life will look like after just 10 years when the consequences of coral bleaching and rising ocean temperatures will be much more severe than today?
Lola Maria is 74 years old but still she paddles to the harbour of Lucena, Queszon, and wait for boat passengers to toss her coins which she’ll dive for – every day. She exhibits great diving skills reaching several meters on her hunt for coins and she can get approximately 100 pesos daily, some of which goes to send her grand children to school.
Like most Sama people in Luzon in northern Philippines, Lola Maria orginally came from Zamboanga. She tells us a story that we have heard many times before: a lot of Sama people lead a difficult life on the run, in a world with less fish and more tensions, yet surviving by cooperating closely over generations and taking advantage of their inherited skills.
in August 2016, Lola Maria, was featured in a GMA News’ Front Row documentary titled “Mga Barya ni Lola Maria” (The Coins of Grandma Maria).
Bajau Laut are famous for their stilt houses that are built meters above the sea level. Islands like Maiga, Denwanan and Pulu Gaya in Semporna attracts thousands of tourists every year for their fascinating houses and people.
This architecture can be a great source of inspiration for the green movement, as described in ArchDaily and their article 5 Architectural Secrets of the Badjao: 21st Century Sea People (though it contains some minor errors regarding Bajau Laut’s history and geographical expansion).
The key words in Bajau Laut architecture is adaptibility. In west, we generally aspire for solidity, thick and immovable construction, and maximum fortification. We don’t build with the elements, but in order to master them, to control them. The Bajau Laut, on the other hand, have learned how to live with the elements and to adapt their construction to the natural environment. Hence. waves, floods and erosion will be a minor problem for Bajau’s settlements – but at the same time thay will have a closer access to sea life than anyone else.
Bajau Laut build short term, and live long term. They continuously replace older materials and they use whatever they can find in their natural surroundings. They have simply accepted the fact that they can’t change the flow of water.
The Bajau of Matina Aplaya – where I have been staying for several months – have been recruited as auxiliaries for coast guard and maritime police in Davao. They have been given a number of fiberglass motorized fishing boats and will report illegal fishing activities fronting their communities and gather garbage floating in the sea. The fishermen will also receive a honorarium on the condition that they will let their children undergo a basic literacy program. The programme is called “Bantay Laut”.
The idea of involving local communities in maintaining sustainable fisheries is great, and will recreate Bajau’s traditional role as guardians of the sea. However, the political linkages must be taken into account and the teaching should not interfere with Bajau’s culture and way of life. In a whole this is great news that contrasts with the negative news we often hear about Bajau Laut in the Philippines and Malaysia. At last, the Bajau Laut are being treated as actors.
The news has more than 11 000 likes on Facebook and more than 3 500 shares.
AJ+ has published a new movie about the situation of kids in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia: “The Invisible Kids”. A majority of the people in the movie are Bajau Laut who stay without legal documents in Malaysia.
The Malaysian government started to deport illegal migrants on a higher scale after the Lahad Datu terrorist attack in 2013, where sex civilians and ten Malaysian security forces were killed. But the problem is that innocent stateless people without political connections also get affected. How many Bajau Laut claim that Sabah should be a part of the Sultanate of Sulu? Very few – the sultanate was just another empire they were alienated from. A majority of the Bajau Laut just want to live their lives in peace.
Bajau Laut have been living in the region for centuries, before any formation of national states. They do not belong to “Philippines”, “Malaysia” or “Indonesia”.
The linguist Luke Schroeder has made a shark poster in Sinama. Still today many elder Sama Dilaut have great knowledge about different shark species and their habitats and nature.
Luke Schroeder has put a great effort in making the poster, talking with many Sama fishermen. When pictures have not been enough, he has interviewed Sama men on the behaviors and nature of the sharks which Luke has been able to link to scientific descriptions of the sharks.
The older generations of Sama still have a great knowledge about sharks, but the younger fishermen are much less familiar with the sharks behavior and nature.
Over exploitation of sharks has made shark fishing illegal throughout Southeast Asia. Also Bajau Laut fishermen have contributed to the near extinction of many shark species, largely driven by a great demand for shark fins.
Luke Schroeder has also published a poster about coral fish in Sinama, which can be found on his website: Common Reef Fish Sinama, English, & Scientific Name Poster.