Bajau Laut have been living in Southeast Sulawesi since the 16th century. Originally, they were involved in the spice trade, transporting lucrative spices from Moluccas to Borneo. When the Dutch colonialists changed the trade routes many Bajau Laut stayed on their houseboats made a living completely from sea harvesting. Some do still today.
WWF in Wakatobi
In one of the villages of Buton, Lasalimu, I met Sadar, a Bajau who works for WWF in Wakatobi. His work is to persuade Bajau fishermen stop dynamite fishing. “In Wakatobi we have been quite successful but further north many Bajau use fish bombs and cyanide”.
In Wakatobi most fishermen make a living from skin diving, as compressors are illegal. “We also try to regulate how much fish they can catch a day”, Sadar told me, “it is necessary because they are fishing in Wakatobi National Park”.
Sadar also told me that it still is practice among some Bajau to throw the placenta in the ocean after giving birth. They believe that the child will protect the sea as “it is the home of their sibling”. You can read more in this article in Al Jazeera: Indonesia’s last nomadic sea gypsies (2012-10-06).
Born on the sea
After my visit in Buton I headed north to Lasolo where many Bajau Laut are living on small, isolated islands. Around these islands, many Bajau used to live on the boats till only a few years ago. More or less everyone above 10 years old were born on the sea.
The author of Outcasts of the Islands, Sebastian Hope, visited Lasolo in the last decade and met sea nomads close to Boenaga and island of Labengke in Lasolo. But today all of them are living in houses.
In the Gulf of Togian in northern Sulawesi, however, it is still possible to find Bajau Laut who have been on the boat their entire lives.
Sama Language – spread over the Coral Triangle
Throughout The Coral Triangle you can find pockets of Sama communities, distinctive from the surrounding society, but speaking more or less the same language as other Sama groups living miles away.
It has been very interesting to be able to meet Sama people in Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia and compare their dialects. As a matter of fact, there are still many similarities in their languages. For example, most words related to their maritime lifestyle are identical in all dialects I have encountered, like “amana” (spear-gun fishing) “messi” (hook-and-line fishing), “anga ringi” (netfishing), “e‘bong” (dolphin), “kalitan” (shark), “bokko´” (turtle), “gojak” (waves), “mosaj” (to paddle).
During my next Indonesian trip I would like to visit Flores, not far from Australia … probably they will speak a similar dialect here as well… But that will be explored during another journey. Now I am heading back to Semporna.
In Eastern Kalimantan, Borneo, Bajau Laut have been living for generations. Originally they arrived on houseboats from the Sulu Sea.
I visited Derawan Islands where I stayed for one week. It is a tourist paradise with excellent diving spots and fascinating sea creatures as manta rays and hawksbill sea turtles. Most people on the islands are Bajau and they speak more or less the same dialect as in Semporna, Malaysia. I was pleased to see that most children still speak Sinama – and they were spending their afternoons swimming and playing next to sea turtles in the shallow waters.
Derawan Islands consist of a large number of island, of whom two are inhabited – Pulau Derawan and Pulau Maratua. The islands are far from as exploited as for example Mabul in Semporna, and all resorts are owned and run by local people.
One of the islands, Sanalaki, is well-known for their hawksbill turtles and coral manta ray . Here visitors can swim with the giant rays and watch the turtles when they enter the beach at night laying their eggs. On the island of Kakaban you can also find a lake full of jellyfish – but they are completely harmless.
Recently, many Sama Dilaut used to stay in the area, moving between Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia in search for fishing grounds. But today there are no nomads left, as the Indonesian government repeatedly have confiscated their boats and sent them back to Malaysia. They are not welcome as they lack legal papers.
The local people control the islands – they where empty when Bajau settled here for more than 100 years ago. “I want Sanalaki to become as Sipadan in Malaysia”, one local Bajau dive operator told me, “a tourist heaven and a sanctuary”.
The Derawan Islands are also important for the Indonesian live fish trade. From here, great numbers of lobster and groupers are transported to Surabaya on Java and Tawau in Sabah, Malaysia. Much of the fish end up on luxury restaurants in Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.
After Derawan I am heading towards Southeast Sulawesi where I will visit Bajo Laut, who have lived in the area for hundreds of years. They are distant relatives to Bajau Laut in the Sulu Sea, but much of their lifestyle are the same. Once again I will visit the village Topa which I went to almost two years ago – following the footsteps of Erika Schagatay, who was there for more than 20 years ago.
It is always a pleasant experience to come to the Sama Community in Matina Aplaya, Davao City, Philippines. Almost 100 people greeted me when I entered the village in the beginning of December. I could see children playing drums, fishermen preparing their “pana” (speargun) and women nursing their small children.
Then followed one month of swimming, fishing, playing with children, playing volleyball and celebrating Christmas and New Year.
Skilled 10-year old fisherman
I had the opportunity to follow one of the younger fishermen in the village, Jimmy, 10,at sea. I followed him underwater while he caught fish after fish with his harpoon. He is one of few children in the village that has grew up as a traditional fisherman, and hence, one of few children that has ruptured his eardrum. However, it is getting more and more difficult to make a living from the sea, due to over-fishing and more extreme weather.
But why do they rupture their eardrums? In fact, it is seen as practical since diving is an everyday activity. The ruptured eardrum can be seen as an investment: If you are going to make more than 10 000 dives during your lifetime, and if you never have learned how to equalize properly, then rupturing your eardrum becomes a shortcut to the ocean’s depth. “If you rupture it once, you will have no problem diving throughout your life” one young fisherman explained. Of course, older men have hearing problems and the fishermen will get ear infections over the years as water enters their middle ears … but they are taking inherited medicines … and the inner ear will generally never be affected.
In the Sama community of Matina Aplaya it is still common that the fishermen make up to three week long journeys to abundant fishing spots further south in the Davao Gulf. It is not easy – but not either impossible – to make a living completely from the sea. They sleep on the boat: spearfish during the day and hook-and-line fish in the evening. When they return to the village they normally buy a big fish and share it with their families… Many of the fishermen continue to harvest at sea – no matter what the season or happenings around them.
How big is their ecological footprint?
This is the fourth time I visit the village since 2010 when I started to study about Bajau Laut right here – and I hope to be able to make many future visits. One new thing for this time was that a quite many families had started to make a living from selling of secondhand shoes, that they buy in the market in sacks for either 1 000 pesos or 2 800 pesos each. Then, they are repairing the shoes and selling them to people in Davao and neighboring cities.
In December it is also common that Sama and other local tribes of Davao are playing music and dance while going from house to house begging for food and money. The Sama children are performing with recycled drums, made by metal and plastic waste. A group of enthusiastic children can make 200-300 pesos a day in this way.
Many people might say that Sama are uncivilized and dirty – that they are begging parasites. But in fact they are making a lot of recycling services that the modern Philippine society doesn’t do. For example they collect a lot metal and plastic waste from the shorelines, they reuse and restore clothes and shoes, establish a flourishing second hand market, and they catch fish with sustaining fishing methods. Most of their money goes to purchasing of water and food, like cassava, fish and fruits – even if they also are buying Christmas gifts. Overall, their ecological footprint is nearly zero.
Recently, the Philippine spokesperson at United Nations climate change conference in Doha, Naderev Sano, made a long-lasting impression on many of the listeners. Only days before the eastern Mindanao of Philippines had been hit by a devastating typhoon… ”There is massive and widespread devastation back home. Heartbreaking tragedies like this are not unique to the Philippines”, he said, emphasizing that Philippines and other countries may face more extreme weather disturbances if climate change is left unchecked You can see his speech here: Plea by Naderev M. Sano of the Phillipines and read an article in the Guardian about the speech here: Will Philippines negotiator’s tears change our course on climate change?
Indeed, the Philippines and the world are facing many climate-related challenges – and I am sure that we can learn a lot from the Bajau tackling these problems!
Badjao Association of Matina Aplaya
Another new thing in the community is that they have organized themselves in an organization – The Badjao Associaition of Matina Aplaya. The purpose of the organization is to establish a long-term livelihood for the community, either on fishing or selling of clothes and pearls. For example, the members of the organization will be able to borrow money for a small cost. They are also planning to build a local school: “If the children can learn how to read and write in their own language, they will be able to attend the regular Philippine school”, Lolita, one of the community leaders, said.
In the beginning of January I am heading back to Malaysia – and from there I will go to Sulawesi, Indonesia, where I will live with the Bajo, another Sama Dilaut group, who have been separated from their relatives in Malaysia and Philippines for almost 200 years. In Sulawesi I will visit the isolated village Lasolo – one of the places where their might still be boat-dwelling Sama people outside of Borneo.
For more than one month I have been living in Semporna, in Sabah, where I have visited remote islands and several Sama Dilaut (Bajau Laut) communities. I have talked to sea nomads, been diving, attained a wedding and continued to learn the basics of Sinama.
One thing that surprises me is the life pulse and energy I always feel when I visit a Sama community. Even if I go to Semporna or remote parts of Mindanao I always get the same feeling.
Hundreds of sea nomads
In Semporna hundreds of house boats have their moorage, either close to one of the many islands in the region or simply in Semporna town close to the Sama Dilaut communities Kampong Halo and Bangau Bangau. They make their living entirely from the sea: they are net fishing, hook-fishing, spear gun fishing and dive for sea cucumber and pearls. During low tide they also go along the shallow corals and collect sea shells. It is fascinating to see the water adaptation of the Sama – an adaptation that starts in early age. A child learns to swim when it is 2-3 years old, it learns how to paddle a boat at five and dive at the age of six.
Unfortunately, some of the Sama Dilaut fishermen are also involved in dynamite fishing and compressor diving. Fish bombing is, of course, devastating for the marine life as it completely destroys the corals. But as one fisherman told me: “when I go hook fishing I must wait a long time for a catch, but if I throw a bomb I will get plenty of fish in seconds!” Of course, bomb fishing is highly illegal and leads to imprison and big fines. I met one pregnant woman with small children whose husband and oldest son had been caught bombing fish, which left the family without livelihood.
It is important to note, however, that it is unusual that boat living Sama make a living from dynamite fishing. It is much more common among more settled, house-dwelling Sama Dilaut fishermen.
Refugees from Philippines
Nearly all Sama Dilaut in Sabah are refugees from the Philippines. Many of them lack Identity cards and passports. A majority doesn’t even have a birth certificate. Without ID you have no right to get medical support (it costs 50 RM, approximately 17 USD without ID for a medical checkup and only 1 RM if you are a Malaysian citizen) and schooling. However, many Sama Dilaut have a “lepa passport” (a houseboat passport) authorized by the local government which gives them right to stay in the waters of Sabah.
Probably, the reason behind Sama Dilaut’s partly devastating fishing methods is linked to the fact that they are not recognized as legal – as a matter of fact many Sama Dilaut do never set their foot on land because of fear of deportation. Hence, if you are living there illegally and don’t get any support from local authorities, you might be tempted to get involved in devastating fishing practices.
When I talk to the Sama Dilaut they all tell me one thing – they are afraid of the Tausug people of the Sulu – which have ruled the area for centuries. Today many Tausug are armed and some of them have been in part of the creation of the Abu Sayyaf guerilla. For decades they have been fighting against the Philippine government in order to establish a free Muslim state in southern Philippines. Recently, a peace agreement were settled which has calmed the overall situation, but single Sama individuals are still under huge threat (see: Philippines peace deal is far from a done deal for more information). Their catch and their machines are taken under night. Young women are forced to marry which make them escape in the middle of the night. Bombs have been thrown into their houseboats.
In Philippines, the police don’t do much to ease the situation for Sama Dilaut. In Malaysia, however, the police and military are very active, and thousands of tourists are arriving every year, which make the situation calm.
Have they always been nomads?
It is estimated that the nomadic lifestyle of Sama Dilaut is more than 1000 years old, but I have wondered if the present day sea nomads always have been living in the boat, or if they till recently have been living in houses? During my first month of stay with Sama Dilaut I have been asking many nomads about their history. As a matter of fact, some of the present day sea nomads have actually quite recently been living in houses in Philippines, but they resurrected their forefathers way of living when they came as refugees to Malaysia. It is still unclear how many of the nomads that have been nomads for generations, and that is one question I would like to figure out during my six month long stay in Southeast Asia.
In one week I am going to Philippines where I will visit the Sama Dilaut community in Matina Aplaya, Davao City. Here many people are living entirely on spear-gun fishing and they use no compressors and no dynamite. I am really looking forward to come back to Mindanao!
During my stay in Semporna I heard that many people were talking about Estino Taniyu, a Bajau Laut from Bangau Bagnau, who is working for the Malaysian Navy . They told me that he had won a swimming competition in Europe. “Melikan Taraug”, (‘the white men lost’), they said. I searched for Taniyu on the Internet and read that he had swum across the English channel, the third Malaysian and the first Bajau Laut ever to do so. He crossed the channel in 13 hours and 45 minutes.
Estino Taniy is far from the fastest swimmer who has swum across the channel, but we have to keep in mind that none Bajau swimmer have gone through professional training. Estino has grown up in an are that was completely water based only 50 years ago, when they arrived from Sitankai on their houseboats. It is also worth to mention that the first man ever who swam across the channel, Matthew Webb in 1875, needed more than 21 hours to complete the endeavor – and he hold the record for decades.
I met Estino Taniyu’s mother in her house in Bangau Bagnau. She told me that thousands of Semporna locals, including Pakistani and Malay people, had come to their house to celebrate when Estino returned from England. She also told me that Estino used to follow his father fishing when he was young.
“I made it through physical and mental preparation, the experience of being a village boy and the son of a fisherman and support from my team and the Malaysian army,” Estino told The Borneo Post in an interview. You can read more in their article: Semporna welcomes home English Channel swimmer
On October 18th, I am heading towards Southeast Asia for a six months long stay with Bajau Laut – The People of the Sea.
My first stop will be on Borneo, Malaysia, where I will live among Bajau Laut sea nomads. Still, more than hundeds of people spend their entire lives on boats. Here I will gather material for my Master Thesis on dynamite fishing and make a short movie about Bajau Laut’s maritime lifestyle. Thanks to Barnens Stipendiefond that has given me a grant for making the film!
During the journey I will also spend time in southern Philippines, where I will visit a Bajau Laut community in Davao City – where I have lived for several months.
In the beginning of next year I am also heading towards Sulawesi, Indonesia, where I will live among Bajo people (they are relatives of Bajau in Malaysia and Philippines, but speak a different dialect).
Throughout the journey I will also collect diving statistics for professor Erika Schagatay at the Mid-Sweden University. I am bringing three logging devices that will measure how deep the Bajau fishermen dive and for how long they stay under water. The most interesting data is, though, their underwater working time during a longer period of diving.
I will make continuous updates on the blog during the journey.
To celebrate the 2012 Olympic games, Survival International reveals some of the astonishing skills of the world’s tribal peoples, from the Awá archers of the Amazon to the Bajau divers of Borneo: Tribal Olympians.
“Scientists have discovered that the Bajau are submerged for up to 60% of the time they spend in the water, which is nearly as long as a sea-otter”. The source of this information comes from a research made by Erika Schagatay, Angelica Lodin-Sundström and Erik Abrahamsson during 2010 and 2011. You can find the article here: Underwater working times in Ama and Bajau Divers
From the Survival International article: “Swifter, higher, stronger was the motto that Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, coined for the Olympic Games. How far can a Hamar man jump; how deep can a Bajau pearl-hunter dive?
The astonishing skills of tribal peoples are not only a measure of just how swift, high and strong we can be as humans – where our physical and mental limits lie – but an indicator of the extraordinary diversity of mankind.
In short, they show us – just as the Olympians will in the London 2012 Games – what it is to be human”.
In the end of Decmber we visited Bajau Laut in Davao City, Philippines, where we went fishing and diving at the coast of Samal Island. The Bajau children in Davao learn how to dive in an early age. They have a superb underwater vision and learn how to fish with a harpoon in the age of ten.
The researcher Anna Gislén at Lund University has studied the underwater vision of Moken children at the southern coast of Burma. She found that they have the capacity to maximally constrict their pupils and therefore focus on small objects under water. She has also shown that all children have the potential to see clearly under water – but they will have to practise for weeks. You can find the study here: Superior Underwater Vision in a Human Population of Sea Gypsies
Here you can also see a short BBC-movie about Moken’s ability to see clearly under water:
Swedish scientists have studied the diving skills of Ama in Japan and Bajau Laut in Philippines. The result is fascinating: the divers in both groups stay in general more than 50% of the working time under water while spearfishing or sea harvesting. Erika Schagatay, professor at the department of engineering and sustainable development at Mid Sweden University, has lead the study.
The study gives strong support to the idea that repeated diving has played an important role in the human evolution. Read the article here: Underwater working times in Ama and Bajau. The article was published in March 2011 in Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine.
In Semporna, Borneo, you can probably find the highest concentration of houseboats in the world. The nomadic lifestyle does also seem to be flourishing, as some of the new houseboats are more robust than many of the stilt houses.
Back in Malaysia I visited Danawan island where more than 100 houseboats are anchored from time to time. Danawan is one of the most isolated islands in the region and just one hour boat ride from the Philippines; a country which is frightening many people.
“We all come from the Philippines”, one of the Bajau boat dwellers said. “But we can’t live their anymore; some pirates threw fish bombs in to our boats”. In Semporna the Bajau Laut remain their nomadic lifestyle, traveling from island to island or city to city in search for fish and buyers. “We use to travel between Lahad Datu and Semporna”, one man said. “Some of my friends also go to Indonesia”. When I asked if they prefer to stay on the boat instead of in a house, they generally say yes. “We can move freely on the boats”, one woman said, “but we have to avoid the strong waves”.
The Bajau Laut generally have a very good health. They eat cassava, sea vegteblaes and fish – a diet which can be recognized as “indigenous”. More or less everyone is slim and they seldom get sick.
But the truth is that they can’t afford to be sick – as health care is very expensive for non-Malaysian citizens. “In Malaysia we have security, but we have no support from the government”, the woman said. Without identity card it is impossible to get education and health care. Bajau Laut are literally ignored by the Malaysian government. They can freely dwell in the Malaysian water due to their status as indigenous people, but they have no possibility to gain from the social system. Even if they have stayed there for 10-15 years they can’t get a Malaysian citizenship, as they have no birth certificate and no money.
Still, Semporna can be seen as a heaven for Bajau Laut. Here the fishing is good and water is clean – making the spearfishing and dwelling to an ideal lifestyle. Actually they are living in a symbiosis with the thousands of tourists that every year visit Semporna, for diving and recreation. The Malaysian government wants to preserve the fish populations and they know that tourists love the beautiful islands and the exotic stilt houses. Therefore, house building on the islands are more or less impossible, if you don’t get a very expensive permission. But the Bajau Laut, on the other hand, can build as many houses they want – if they keep it small. The waters of Semporna is, hence, both a free state for Bajau Laut and a paradise for the tourists.
The houseboat communities live in co-existence with land bounded Bajau communities. Most nomads don’t speak any other language than Sinama and they depend on trade to get cassava and, more recently gasoline. But most fresh water and dry wood can be brought from nearby islands, like Danawan.
Bajau Laut are facing discrimination from the surrounding society. They are looked down upon by other Bajau groups who have been in school, learned Malay and adapted to the Malaysian society. “I don’t have any ‘Pala’u’ friend”, one woman in Danawan islands said. “They don’t take a bath for a week”, she explained. In general Bajau Laut have darker skin than other Bajau people and bleached hair, due to the many hours on sea – making their status even lower.
Bajau Laut know how to survive and have done so for centuries. But they are put aside by governments and discriminated by their neighbors. They are also increasingly facing problems due to over-fishing and climate change, and who knows what their future will look like. But maybe, as water level rises, their nomadic lifestyle will have a renaissance. Back to the boats!
Here comes a link to a reportage in the Swedish Radio and the programme P3 Planet, in Swedish: “De dyker djupare och djupare tills det spricker”. (They dive deeper and deeper till the eardrums rupture). The reportage is about Erik Abrahamsson’s stay with Bajau Laut in the Philippines.
How much has a Bajo village changed in 20 years? It was one thing that I wanted to find out when I went to Topa in southeast Sulawesi.
Erika Schagatay, a professor in Human Physiology at the Mid-Sweden University, was there for 20 years ago when she documented the diving skills of Bajo fishermen.
I brought some pictures from her last trip, and when I arrived to the village they were really excited to the see the old photos. They told me that I was the third visitor in 20 years (an Australian tourist had been there for a couple of years ago), and the children were afraid of me in the beginning, but became soon used to the strange foreigner.
So, what about Topa? Actually very little seems to have changed over the last 20 years. Most houses are still of traditional style, nearly every family make their living from the sea, and most children spend half day in water. But of course, some of the inhabitants have mobile phones and many houses has an electricity source.
“We came here 60-70 years ago”, the community leader said. “Before we lived on boats, which we had done for centuries before that. We are Sama Asli” – the ‘genuine’.
I spent some intensive days in Topa before I started the long journey back to Malaysia. The children became more and more confident with my presence and we went swimming several times. And as you can expect – they are great divers!
When I was in Wakatobi I also met a young Bajo man, called Sadar, who is working for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). His work is to inform Bajo communities about the devastating effects of dynamite and cyanide fishing.
“Many Bajo don’t like my work”, he says. “For some of them the ocean is only about business. They only care about catching the fish”.
Sadar estimates that as many as 20% of the Bajo fishermen are using destructive fishing methods. “But many of them are still using the pana, the spear”, Sadar says, “and it is mostly businessmen with contacts in Makassar or Manado that are using the bombs”.
I ask if there are other groups using dynamites and cyanide, and he says “yes”. “But Bajo is the group that are using most destructive methods. It is sad, but that is the reality”.
The WWF-project in Wakatobi has been successful and less and less people are using dynamite in Wakatobi today. “But in other places, as for example in Kendari some miles north of Wakatobi, there are much more illegal fishermen”, Sadar says. “But no conversation project”. The reason is simple: Wakatobi is a national park and is important for the Indonesian tourism industry. Outside the national park it is business as usual.
The Bajau Laut have been spread over a huge area of Southeast Asia. Originally they come from the Sulu Sea in the Philippines, but only recently they were accused of illegal fishing in the Australian fishing zone … The last weeks I have been in Sulawesi in Indonesia, in order to meet Bajau, or Bajo, and to get an understanding about the diversity of these fascinating people.
I took a ferry from Sabah and arrived four days later in Wakatobi in Southeast Asia. I moved in to a Bajo village called Sanpela, based approximately 100 meter from the closest island, Kaledupa, where I stayed for one week. It was astonishing how similar the language and the lifestyle was as compared to Malaysia and Philippines – even if they have lived separated for maybe 200 years. It took some days to learn a partly new vocabulary but after that we could communicate quite smoothly. The inhabitants were glad to hear news from Malaysia and Philippines, as some of them have relatives there. “Are there much fish?”, “Do you have any pictures”, “Are there still conflicts in the Philippines?”
The village Sanpela was established for 60-70 years ago when boat-dwellers arrived in the area. Still today more or less every family make a living from the sea (spear-, net- and hook-fishing), and you can see boys as young as five running around with fishing spears. Some people do also work with tourism, as Wakatobi is home of some of the best coral reefs in the world.
I came in contact with the Bajo village through the Dutch organization PESISIR who is working in Sanpela, where they support education and health care. Over the last years more and more tourists and student groups have come to Wakatobi, but it hasn’t affected Bajo in a very big scale.
My next project is to visit the Bajo village Topa, that is much more isolated. Erika Schagatay, a professor in Human Physiology at the Mid-Sweden University was there for more than 20 years ago, and I have brought some pictures from her journey. It will be very interesting to see how the village have changed over the past decades … but probably it ill be very much the same.
Bajau are outcasts of the see, but they are still Sama, “the same”. No matter if they are living in the suburbs of Manila or in an Indonesian National Park.
It was a real chock to enter Semporna (northeastern Borneo) at the first time. Everyone was speaking the language Sinama, they were driving cars, working in banks, using Internet cafes, etc. What in Mindanao was a small language spoken by a small tribe of sea people, is here the everyday language of more than 70 000 people.
But in fact this is not very strange. Today you can find many different Bajau groups. Originally they were all sea nomads but some left the nomadic life centuries ago. In Davao City I have been living with a Bajau group called sama Sama Pala´u or “the people that lives on boat” and they have maintained their traditional way of living in a very high extent. Few of them go to school, they are not familiar with the modern lifestyle and they make their living from fishing.
So, are there any Sama Pala’u (or Bajau Laut) in Semporna? Oh, yes! On my second day in Semporna I went to an isolated island called Denawan where I stayed for two nights. And there I could see more than 50 house boats = sea nomads, and approximately 50% of these boats are not equipped with an engine. They are used to travel between islands of Sabah, Kalimantan (Indonesia) and Philippines in search for fish and good weather conditions. They can freely cross the boarder between Malaysia and Philippines due to their status as indigenous people. They live on the boat – their house and their heaven!
In Semporna the fishing is great. On Denawan island Sama Pala´u cathced large number of fish every day, that later will be sold in the cities of Semporna, Sandakan or Kota Kinabalau. The dive sites outside of Semporna are listed among the best sites in the world, and every year thousands of tourists are arriving. They are mostly served by Bajau workers.
I have also been spending a lot of time in the fish port of Semporna, called Jombatan. It´s a lively place with fishing boats, fishermen, fruits, restaurants and thousands of Sinama speakers. Many of them were very really surprised and glad when they realized that I could speak their dialect: “You are the first white person that speak our language!”.
I have been talking to some of the younger fishermen in Matina Aplaya and they all say the same thing: “in young age we deliberately broke our eardrums”. It pains and bleeds for one week but after that they can dive without pain for the rest of their lives. Even a boy as young as eleven told me that his eardrums were now broken – “abostak talinga na!” You can find find more information about Bajau’s habit to break eardrums in this article : The last of the sea nomads (The Guardian).
I have also asked Bajau in Davao about the old times, when they first arrived in the city for approximately 30 years ago. The community leader of Matina Aplaya told me that before he settled in a stilt house in Davao he was a boat dweller. “When I got married in the age of 19 I built a boat for me, my wife and my younger brother and we stayed on the boat for a couple of years”. “It was a nice time, a lot of fish, a cluster of house boats, cheap food, and healthy coralls”. They had no boat machine and were paddling around the harbour of Davao. “Our two first children were born on the boat”.
The Badjao community in Matina Aplaya was established for approximately 20 years ago. In the beginning the village consisted of only a small number of families, but today the village has more than 300 inhabitants. And the number increases for every year as new migrants arrive from Zamboanga City. In total, there are three Badjao communities in Davao City. And they still break their eardrums …
Badjao have mastered the seas of Southeast Asia for centuries. They have been known as Sama Dilaut – the people that lives on boats. Historically they have been famous pearl divers and fishermen, and they could navigate over vast distances.
Today – on the other hand – they are seen the lowest people of all, specially in the Philippines. They are seen as uneducated (which they are), uncivilized, dirty and lazy. In many part of the Philippines, Badjao have become beggars, due to reduced fish levels and conflicts in the Sulu Sea.
But Badjao don’t seem to mind about the discrimination. They are still proud and know their traditions: they have other skills, other conceptions and other motives in life. Unlike many other indigenous tribes in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia they preserve their language and traditions, and no not suffer from social problems.
They are called the “Outcasts” and have resisted outside pressure for centuries. In young age they deliberately break their eardrums; they are Sama Pala’u – “People living on boats”.
The book “Badjao – People of the Sea” was written in 2010 after a fieldwork among Bajau Laut (or Sama Pala´u) in Davao City. To learn about indigenous people, is to learn about humanity.
Here comes some information about the Badjao community in Matina Aplaya, were I was living between February-April this year.
• One of 300 has a work in the regular job market
• Two have been studying in high school
• Almost no one of the elders can write or read
• Ten of approximately 150 children are in school
• Most people live on less than one dollar a day.
In a general life quality index Badjao is in the vey bottom, and they would have been a priority for organizations like Oxfam and Save the Children. But why? In fact, they are among the most active and smiling people I have met. They are living in a rich village life, the children are playing without computer games and a vast majority has healthy bodies. Even if they have small resources, we can consider them as happy and proud. How can we tell them that they are poor? How come that the Western living standard has become the norm for all people?
During the history we have seen thousands of indigenous cultures being destroyed as roads, mining companies etc. have been spread over their land. Today many governments, corporations and politicians say that change is inevitable and that modern society will expand all over the world like a natural law. There seems to be nothing to do.
But Badjao is a living example of that change is not inevitable. They are still living as a distinct cultural group, their culture is more flourishing than ever, and even it they have been living next to the modern society for years, they still hold on to their lifestyle and traditions. And why not? You can’t force them to change under the flag of “inevitable change” or “development”.
Today the indigenous rights organizations are strengthen their positions. Organizations as Survival International and IWGIA promote the idea that indigenous small-scale cultures should be seen as small nations with their own land and sovereignty, and freedom to decide their own future.
So, let the Badjao children play with their boats, let the adults be illiterate, let them worship the coconut and let them arrange minor age marriages. And, most importantly, give them exclusive right to fishing water they have traditionally utilized. If you protect their land, you will protect their culture.
In the beginning of April I finally left the Badjao community in Matina Aplaya, Davao City. It was a great time of playing with children, swimming and fishing. Towards the end I also started to learn the basics of their language, Sinama, which made the conversations deeper for every day. In the beginning I mostly played “Pangua” (zombie) with the younger children.
Many of the approximately 300 people in the community wanted to say good bye when I took my bag and left the village. Before they had recevied more than 500 pictures which I had printed and distributed among the families, and now they were waving with their photos and asked when I would come back – which probably will be within 1 year! Back home I will bring a couple of souveniers: a fishing spear, a traditional swimming foot, a pair of homemade swimming glasses, colorful cotton and pearls.
If you want to learn more about the journey, go to my “Aquatic Ape” page in Resedagboken