En voyage with the spirited Bajau seafarers

The Bajau have been roaming the Sulu Sea since centuries. Once Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia had established borders in the Sulu Zone during the era of colonialism, the lives of the self-sufficient sea nomads have become rather complicated. By establishing maritime borders through the Madrid Protocol of 1885, the distribution and diversity of the local ethnic groups and communities were not taken into consideration. Since the 15th century, various groups have migrated from the Philippines and settled in Malaysia’s Sabah or vice versa. Due to the Malaysian Immigration Act of 1959/1963 worry-free seafaring changed dramatically, as the legislation knows no distinction between asylum seekers, refugees, irregular migrants, and undocumented or stateless people. Particularly during the climax of the civil war in the Mindanao region in 1970 many Bajau families have set sail for Borneo’s East Coast, where they struggle with Malaysia’s bureaucracy ever since. In the mindset of a Bajau, borders are considered the farthest distance that can be reached by fishing boat.

Some of those migrants are still able to defy the relentless rhythms of globalization and therefore continue to slip through the cracks of modernity. As of 2023, only about 100-200 seafarers still live aboard a traditional «Lansa» houseboat near the city of Semporna. The lack of money for repairs, plus the restrictions of Sabah Parks to cut trees in the area will lead many into joining an offshore community, or worst, they will have to take closer to the mainland where a life as outcasts is a foreseeable consequence.

This multimedia reportage takes an inside look at one of the most fascinating races in the world as well as the steady decline of their cultural identity.

Having no citizenship and therefore no formal rights to settle on the mainland, the Bajau of Philippine origins continue to gather in off-shore communities, some in tiny islands, to sustain their maritime hunting skills which have been handed down for generations. Unfortunately, being stateless also means government privileges, like children having access to public schools or adults finding formal jobs, are nonexistent.

Gladly, the Bajau have preserved their artisan skills well. A self-taught carpenter quickly designs a fishing boat in about a week without a sketch. The charming wooden stilt huts which could host a variety of groups, from a family of five to a community with up to 30 roommates, are completed through teamwork within three weeks. They even produce an every day sunscreen, Borak Buas based on rice powder which the females use to protect their skin from the beating sun rays. Primarily unmarried women use it a lot, with the hope that their skin stay smooth and therefore attract a potential spouse. The Bajau are also known as among the world’s best freedivers, relying on this skill to hunt and feed themselves. They have evolved to have bigger spleens, and can stay underwater for up to 10 minutes at depths of 200 feet. This also makes their food unique. While many sea animals would never make it on fine dining tables, the Bajau eat various sea creatures. Sea cucumbers for instance, are a valuable protein boost for the Bajau, can be used as a medical treatment for diabetes and cancer, and even as an aphrodisiac. Spontaneously, the families disembark to trade their surplus seafood (mainly fish, lobster, and sea cucumber) to nearby islanders. In return, they will stock up on essential bits and pieces to survive the coming days.

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