Palawan’s Sea Gypsies Under Threat

Very few people outside the Badjao community on the Philippine island of Palawan speak their tribal language. But somehow, you just know what it means to hear someone shout “Shark! Shark!” in any language. I scramble up the boat’s armor, nearly tipping it over and making me feel like a 10-tonne elephant out of water.

Jaji, the boat owner and head of the family, calmly stows his home-made spear gun as he eases himself onto the deck. The entire family has a good laugh at someone who has never swum with sharks before. Jaji later estimates the shark to be two meters long. “We will fish somewhere else,” he says, and sets the boat in motion.

Jaji is in his element, a so-called sea gypsy at home on the water, although it remains to be seen how long that will continue. In rapidly urbanizing and sophisticated Asia, the Badjao remain uniquely and apparently happily stuck where they have been for centuries – on the Sulu and Celebes Sea south of the Philippines, east of Borneo and somewhere near paradise, even though modern-day accoutrements like styrofoam, plastic bags and outboard motors have been added to their idyll.

The very name sea gypsy conjures up a romantic vision of a nomad people at home both in and on a tropic ocean, free to roam at will across a vast expanse as they please. The reality is different, particularly for the Badjao, whose existence is as sordid as it is paradisiacal. They are poverty-stricken, uneducated and unhealthy. It is romantic to think of their lives as free and unfettered, but there are probably as many good reasons for taking them out of it as there are to leave them there.

Now someone wants to help — and it is not entirely welcome. After decades of neglect, the government has announced its intention to move the community to a more hygienic location, a decision that is causing considerable pain for the Badjao community. It is unknown if the new location might be off the water. If it is, that threatens a poverty-stricken, unhealthy way of life – but one that the Badjao say they don’t want to give up.

“We love Palawan. We don’t mind being relocated, but please tell them we need to live near the sea,” pleaded Albataya, who took over as village chief some years ago when her father died. “We don’t know how to live on land. We don’t know how to farm, and we don’t know the culture.” Like many other Badjao, Albataya has only one name.

The Badjao settlement near the Palawan capital of Puerto Princesa is a ramshackle village of wooden huts, built on stilts over the water. The streets are bridges made of wooden planks with uncertain footing. In places the boards are rotted through. In others, they are completely missing. A murky tide pool under the village serves as a source of fish, a toilet, a washroom, shower, and recreational swimming pool for children. At low tide, the sand is a thick black sludge, littered with plastic snack wrappers and pop bottles.

Down a particularly precarious alley in the maze of houses is the Badjao Daycare Center, where a dedicated teacher named Nasuraya tutors 45 children, all bright-eyed and excited to see strangers in their classroom. Many Badjao children miss school during periods when their parents put out to sea.

“Sometimes they just move away,” going to sea for long periods of time before they return, Nasuraya says. “They are nomadic. This is normal for them.” Nasuraya is herself a Badjao, but she became a born-again Christian and who graduated from university. She came to live in the settlement seven years ago.

According to Nasuraya, the children face a variety of health problems. “Diarrhea is probably the most common illness. It comes from the dirty water.” The other major problems are dietary. “They don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables,” she says. The diet is mostly fish and rice, a probable explanation for the fact that Badjao children appear smaller than other Filipinos. Bad skin and bad teeth seem common.

Despite their obvious physical and social problems, they come alive on and in the water. Albataya and Jaji had agreed to take me diving if I would cover the 500-peso (US$10.50) cost of petrol.

Watching the children running along the gunwales and jumping from boat to boat while eating the candy I had bought, I was amazed at their agility and balance. More than anything, I was amazed at how fearless they were. But why not? This was their world.

As we pulled away from the village, it became apparent how adept the poverty-stricken Badjao are at reclaiming rubbish. A large fishing raft made of bamboo was supported by pontoons of fishnets stuffed with styrofoam containers and plastic bags. Our boat was itself a marvel. The Badjao typically use long, slender boats, which are then modified. They turn them into outriggers by attaching bamboo armor on both sides. Boards are laid across the armor to be used as sleeping spaces. An old tarp strung across the rigging is the sun shield. The crosspiece of the anchor is also homemade, of wood.

The boys had homemade wooden swim fins. Jaji wore a pair of wooden goggles held on with a piece of string. His spear gun was a shaft about a meter and a half long, carved from wood. The deadly weapon used a large rubber band for propulsion. The trigger was a bent piece of wire. The fishing line was held fast with a plastic tie.

As the oldest male child, 13-year-old Osama, helped steer the boat. He spent much of the journey tending an oar that he controlled by wrapping his leg around it. He followed after Jaji, learning to dive and fish. It was strange to be in the open sea with no life preserver, not even a mask, snorkel or fins.

The children were constantly in and out of the water, swimming fearlessly. Even Jasper, at three, was learning to dive. “This is the life of the Badjao,” my guide said.

Jaji dove and Osama and I swam behind him but were soon lost. He dove impossibly deep. We tried to follow him down, but the pressure on my ears was immense. Jaji swam to the bottom and remained there. He simply walked on the bottom, holding his speargun as if he were hunting in the forest.

Then, THWACK! He shot a fish in mid swim. He surfaced and tossed the fish in the general direction of the boat. An agile five-year old sprang up and retrieved the fish with one hand and laid it at Albatya’s feet.

Jaji said a half-day of spear fishing could net 20 kg of fish, to be sold for 700 pesos, with 300 of that going for gas. That leaves 400 pesos for the family –some families have as many as 12 children.

Albataya said none of the children could read. They went to school for a while but had to stop because the family couldn’t afford the 600-pesos-a year tuition.

By the end of our short excursion Jaji had shot two good-sized fish and a type of huge blowfish with poisonous spines. According to my guide, it was the prize of the day, for the family to eat rather than to sell.

A unique form of Islam

Although the Badjao are nominally Muslim, it is a rudimentary form of Islam indeed. It is clear that most have little or no knowledge of the religion. When I asked if they were Sunni and Shiite, I met was met with blank stares. Nasuraya, the teacher, did confirm that the Badjao refrain from eating pork, and that boys are circumcised at about the age of 13. Albataya, the village chief said the community does not observe the Saturday rest day.

“After we return from the sea, we usually rest two or three days,” she said. “But it

has nothing to do with the religion.” For the most part, neither men nor

women cover their heads, nor do they pray five times a day.

“Most pray once a day and twice on Friday, when we go to the mosque. But now, a lot of the young ones don’t even go on Fridays,” Albataya said. Men and women pray in the same room, although a curtain separates them. The mosque was simply one more bamboo house on stilts, with a loud speaker to call people to prayer.

Albataya told us that she, like much of the community, can’t read or write. When asked how she read the Koran she said, “We don’t have one.” Asked if they observe Ramadan, she answered. “We live different than other Muslims. Our culture is different. We don’t have much contact with other Muslims. We even have our own mosque. The only time we have contact with others is when they invite us to special programs, but that doesn’t happen too often because they know we are different. A lot of families just worship in their home, with their elders running the worship service.”

At the entrance to the Badjao community a young man named Hamza, the son of the Imam, said that “The Badjao don’t know the basic pillars of Islam. They don’t know about Mecca or making the Hajj. And of course, they would never be able to because of financial constraints.” At a nearby madrasa 85 students, both boys and girls, were studying. Not one of them was Badjao.

For more on Asia Sea Gypsies:

The Sea Gypsies of Thailand