TWILIGHT OF THE SEA PEOPLE
Pirates and poverty are forcing the Bajau to give up their seafaring way of life.
by Jose Torres Jr. and Iris Cecilia Gonzales
MALUSO, BASILAN - In one of the houses on stilts along the shore of Teheman, beyond the mangrove trees in this coastal town in Mindanao, a mother is singing to her six-month-old daughter. But as the child is lulled to sleep, another listener is moved to tears.
Beautiful Hanang cries as she curls up on her colorful bridal mat. Her neighbor Furaydah's songs of lost love have brought on memories of Misdal, her husband, who left months ago to join the pirates and never returned. Just this afternoon, Hanang, all of 14, had an abortion. Although her eyes are filled with tears, she says it is all for the best, since she would have been unable to feed her fatherless baby.
"It would be a shame for her to have a child without a father," agrees Hanang's mother. "The child will just die because we will not be able to feed it. It would just be a problem for us later. We don't have any burial place to bury it."
Hanang, however, is unlikely to be the last in her community to make such a decision. For she is one of the Bajau, and for many years now, these once proud people have been taking steps that have broken their own hearts, and have led them farther away from what they used to be - self-reliant people of the sea.
In the past, the Bajau lived almost their entire lives on water. A peaceful people, they would simply float away on their houseboats whenever they felt threatened by groups encroaching on their territory or when adverse conditions impinged upon their community.
Today, after centuries of living and roaming the southern Philippine seas, only a few Bajau still live on their boats, most of them in parts of Tawi-Tawi, Sulu and Zamboanga. Here in Basilan and elsewhere, Bajau boat communities have coalesced into larger pole house villages, where their ways are slowly being taken over by those of the surrounding shore population, and where they now live in abject poverty. Perla de Castro, the Region IX director of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), herself says, "It is quite clear that the Bajau are the most marginalized among all the indigenous people's communities."
It is not by choice that the Bajau have gone onshore. For decades now, they have been losing their traditional fishing grounds to both legal and illegal fishing vessels intruding into their territory. In more recent years, they have become the favorite prey of pirates roaming the seas. Unable to fish and fearing for their safety, the Bajau have been forced to abandon their traditional homes on boats for stilt houses where they thought they would be able to live in peace.
But on land, the Bajau have no real means of livelihood. This is why the first - and often, only - meal of the day comes as late as two in the afternoon, when the few men who have boats return with their catch. Desperate to feed their families, many of the tribe's members, male and female, have left for faraway cities to beg. A growing number of the women left behind are also opting to abort their unborn children rather than see their offspring die later of hunger or disease. In fact, many Badjau children now suffer from malnutrition, dysentery, malaria, tuberculosis and ulcer.
"We don't have food for the children anymore," says Dalpaki, a 35-year old Bajau community leader who looks twice his age. "They are now dying or are even killed inside the womb of their mothers."
Indeed, even burying their dead has become a problem for these gentle people. Their traditional burial ground, a small island off the shore of Maluso, has been taken over by a Tausug community who fled from the poverty and the sporadic fighting between Moro rebels and government soldiers in the nearby province of Sulu. Says Dalpaki: "We have to dig up our ancestors to bury our dead. Sometimes we have to travel far to bring our beloved to some desolate island in the middle of the ocean for burial."
The Bajau, who number from 70,000 to 100,000, believe any kind of misery that befalls them is brought about by saitan, evil spirits who live in the sea and mangrove forests. The tribe also believes in other spirits that are said to travel from place to place, often in the form of animals or fish. The Bajau say hordes of these wandering spirits invade villages, causing an epidemic or illness.
It used to be that shamans would perform a curative rite known as the omboh, which involves the launching of a pamatulikan (spirit boat), to get rid of such spirits. These days, the Bajau are too poor to launch even a small boat for the ritual. But they also know that their omboh may not be able to protect them from more ruthless saitan who wear bonnet masks and are called by many names like pirata or Abu Sayyaf. Not to mention the big commercial fishing vessels that now dominate the waters they used to call home.
Many of the Bajau who still venture out to sea say the modern-day saitan take away not only their catch for the day, but also the motors of their boats. As for the Abu Sayyaf, the Bajau say the group of bandits harass them for food. Paki, a tribal elder with scabies all over his body, admits, "Our omboh seems not to work anymore against these evils."
THE TRUTH is that even before these saitan began tormenting them, the Bajau never really had it easy, despite the romantic portrayals of the tribe by filmmakers. But when they were still living at sea, the Bajau were at least free from the everyday disdain of people like the Tausug and the Samal.
It is unclear why the Tausug and the Samal think of the Bajau as social inferiors. In a recent study, however, Professor Aurora Roxas-Lim of the University of the Philippines' Asian Center, says that the prejudices against the Bajau often stem from the preconception that all nomadic people are by nature shiftless, rootless, irresponsible and unreliable.
Whatever the reason, it is obvious that the insults flung at the tribe hurt, and hurt deeply. Jainal, an 11-year-old Bajau who is lucky enough to attend school, says, "My Muslim classmates despise the Bajau because, they say, we are ugly and we smell bad."
Estrellita Vicente, who last February headed a conference in Zamboanga City on the history and culture of the tribe, also says discrimination against the Bajau may be partly why it always seems as if they are "overwhelmingly outnumbered" by their Tausug and Samal neighbors. As Vicente sees it, the inferior status accorded to the Bajau may have led tribal members now living onshore to identify themselves to census takers as Tausug and Samal.
Some Bajau, especially those who have married Samal or other land dwellers, have also adopted modern practices, thereby making them less distinct from other people. Hadji Musa Malabong, a Bajau from Sitangkai who now works with the Department of Education, Culture and Sports, said that in the old days, the sound of the tribe's musical instruments such as the tambul, kulintangan and agung could be heard from miles during celebrations such as weddings. Today, though, the Bajau on land would rather hire bands or rent karaoke sets. They also rarely perform traditional dances, such as the igal, which the women used to do while at sea, on the boat. There is radio to listen to, and beer to swill, instead.
The practice of blackening their teeth with wet tobacco, betel nut and lime is seldom done today as well. For the young Bajau, chewing tobacco is dirty. They would rather smoke cigarettes, which they consider a symbol of affluence.
Not surprisingly, traditional weddings, where the bride and groom would have their faces decorated with white powder and dotted with fine charcoal, have become uncommon. These days, the Bajau would rather hire beauticians who like to follow the latest looks in movieland. The Bajau bride of today no longer dons the batawi, a tight-fitting and bejeweled blouse that is paired with a cotton belt known as kandit, for her special day; it now has to be a Western-style wedding gown. As for the groom, gone are the native Badjuh lapeh, a three-quarters long-sleeved shirt opened at the chest, and the fez, a large woven kerchief that is sometimes placed around the shoulder or tied on the head. For the Bajau man about to wed, the clothing of choice is either the barong tagalog or the americana.
Yet for all these attempts to be like the land dwellers, the Bajau remain on the fringe of society. Observers say this is partly because of the tribe's own tendency to keep to itself. When it has something to sell, for instance, it does so not in the public market, but on the street, well away from other vendors.
Some social workers also say that the Bajau's distrust of outsiders is a hindrance to efforts to help the tribe "develop." Arnel Alcober, a Claretian missionary working with the Bajau in Teheman, says that when he first arrived here, he found himself sighing in frustration several times. He recalls, "It was very difficult at the start, not only because they were wary of me but also because of cultural barriers."
But Alcober says that once one earns the trust of the Bajau, "they can be very warm." Bajau children now greet him happily every time he visits the community.
Helping the Bajau has been his most challenging task as a missionary, says Alcober, who had to learn to speak the Sama language used by the Bajau. Fortunately, because of radio programs from nearby Jolo and Zamboanga, most children studying under Claret's literacy program now speak Filipino.
Like many other indigenous peoples, the Bajau have no sense of birth dates. Most of them do not know their age and many do not even have names. Alcober has merely made estimates of their ages, especially of the children who are under the Claretian literacy program. "For the girls, we base their ages from the date of their first menstruation," he says. "The boys, we just make a guess."
At first, while the children were at school, the Bajau parents were taught as well to read and write. But Alcober says he realized that this might not be the kind of education suited to the Bajau. He says, "The Bajau just want to survive. The need to learn how to read and write sometimes escapes their understanding."
He has since changed the approach of the adult literacy program, and the Bajau grown-ups are now being taught operational literacy. "Like how to compute numbers if they would want to run a sari-sari store, or to know if they're getting the right amount every time people buy their fish," explains Alcober. He reports that little by little, the Bajau are learning, adding, "To teach them is really a struggle but it is also a self-actualization which makes the best in people come out."
IT IS no secret, though, that what most Bajau want is to return to the sea. If they can no longer live there like before, then at least they want to be able to continue to live from its resources. To do that, many Bajau believe they will have to have motorized bancas that will enable them to fish farther into the ocean.
Then again, a motorized banca is no guarantee that they will be able to bring their catch to shore, set aside some for their meals and sell the rest. After all, there are the pirates and bigger boats to worry about even that far in the water, and anything can happen between the time a banca leaves the community and comes back.
Sabiya, Dalpaki's sister, recalls that at one point, she summoned enough courage to borrow P50,000 from a Tausug businessman, just so she could buy a motorized banca. "For three years," she says, "we were not able to pay him a single centavo."
Dalpaki notes that almost all the Badjau in Teheman are indebted to the same Tausug businessman who has been charging high interest rates. "Even until we die, we will not be able to pay our debts," he says.
Dalpaki himself chose not to take out a loan from the businessman when things began to get really desperate for his family. Instead, he went to Manila, where he spent six months trying to sell pearls and corals. He boasts that he even went as far as Baguio and Ilocos. He says, though, that he had to pawn his wife's earrings and necklaces to pay for his fare to Luzon.
"It was hard to survive in Manila," says Dalpaki. "Some of us were forced to beg especially when we could not sell anything." But at least he was able to bring home P5,000, which he used to buy a second-hand motorized banca for fishing.
Asked what he would do if he encounters a pirate, Dalpaki's response is far from what one would expect of a member of a peace-loving tribe. He says, "Many Bajau have been killed because we don't have firearms. But if you give us guns, we are now willing to fight back."
That willingness to take up arms may have come about in part from watching even young Bajau beg for a living. At the ports of Zamboanga and Basilan, for example, hordes of naked Bajau children entice ship passengers to throw coins, which they try to catch as they dive deep into the waters. Some travelers perhaps see the youngsters as daring divers showing off their skills. But the Bajau themselves know these children are beggars at sea.
Yet, eight-year-old Anina doesn't seem to mind the work, or that her long hair has been sun-bleached after numerous dives almost every weekend. She says, "We usually get P10. On good days, when there are many commuters, we get P40 pesos."
Fourteen-year-old Absari, meanwhile, has gone as far as Manila to join her grandmother and other Bajau in begging. For three months, she braved dark, cold nights sleeping on the pavement outside the Baclaran church. She says that if they were "lucky," they would get as much as P100 a day. They would then buy some fish for dinner, and whatever was left they bet at card games with fellow Bajau beggars.
Academic Roxas-Lim urges that policy implications on how to deal with marginalized social sectors should include the Bajau. "The plight of the Bajau can serve as the litmus test of how well our so-called democratic system and our national patrimony and the environment are faring," she argues in her study, "Marine Adaptations and Ecological Transformation: The Case of the Bajau and Samalan Communities."
She observes that the Bajau's political participation is almost nil. And when they do participate in elections, they are either relegated to voting for predetermined candidates or caught in the crossfire of feuding political factions and political dynasties.
In this year's elections, Sabiya confesses that they had "no choice" but to participate. "The Tausug businessman has already commissioned us to vote for certain politicians," she says. "We're afraid that if we do not heed his request, we will no longer be able to borrow money from him."
The Bajau are under no delusion that the polls will bring any change to their lives. Says Dalpaki: "It is better that we don't vote because we don't get anything from government anyway."
He points out that in 1999, the Department of Social Work and Development turned over P120,000 to the local government of Maluso as development fund for the Bajau of Teheman. "But not a single centavo came to us," says Dalpaki. "For some strange reason, the money got lost along the way."
"People come to talk to us about our problems but nothing has happened," says his neighbor, Marriam. "We still have no boats. Just listen to the song of Furaydah. If you will understand, you will know our story and you will not talk to us anymore."
But Furayda's singing is interrupted by the distinct crack of a rifle. A child starts crying.
Marriam says to the visitors, "Don't worry. Go to sleep now. We will know tomorrow who it is this time. It's normal here. People get killed."
Her husband quickly admonishes her, "Hush, don't frighten them. They will still have to write our story."
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The Journal of History - Fall 2002 Copyright © 2002 by News Source, Inc.