The stateless Bajau ethnicity in Borneo, Malaysia

The Bajau – Nomads of the Sulu sea

The mystical Sulu Sea, a popular blend of high-end tourism, piracy and the seafaring lifestyle of the Bajau. Depending on whom you will ask, it is either a diver’s paradise or a trouble zone. It became more conspicuous that not only the nomadic Bajau fishermen are roaming the crystal clear waters in search of a good catch, also the Moro gang and Abu Sayyaf with his mates are. Due to governmental mischief and lousy migration control within the trib-boarder area of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, these waters do not only cater maritime beauty to its visitors. Rumor of a next Somalia is getting louder if authorities don’t increase their border security. „Nothing travels faster than the speed of light, with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws“ (Douglas Adams). That’s most likely why tourism and piracy get all the media attention, whereas the Bajau are out of the spotlight. After all, their harsh and traditional way of life should be told. – Jump directly to the image and publication section… or read the story:

Stateless Nomads of the Sea

„Bajau“ or „Sama-Bajau“ is used to describe all closely related indigenous people who define themselves either as „Land Bajau (Bajau Kubang or Bajau Darat)“ or as „Sea Bajau (Bajau Laut)“. Superficially many terminologies for the Bajau people are common, such as refugees, reef people, sea gypsies, sea folk, sea hunters or sea nomads. Although the correct term would simply be „natives“. The whole ethnicity is endemic to this region since the dawn of time when no birth certificate was needed to define one’s identity. As a result, most Bajau remain stateless. They grew up on different islands of the Sulu Archipelago but have migrated to the neighboring area of Borneo, where they now feel more comfortable than in troublous Mindanao in the Southern Philippines. „Fewer thieves, less natural disasters, a better government“, I was told from several folks who dwell along Borneo’s east coast since decades. Most of the Bajau I was interviewing have no citizenship and therefore no rights to settle ashore, nor will they ever be able to send their kids to Malay schools, where a Malaysian identity card is needed for educational access. According to local human right activists as well as former government officials, there is no solution in sight to grant the next Bajau generation a brighter future. Malaysia’s eastern state Sabah at least pretends not to know about the previous illegal migration and let them settle off-shore. But not all are lucky enough to slip through. Even though a few Bajau came in with an official immigration process and may earn little money from local tourism, the great majority remains in the fishing industry, builds stilt houses to park their boat nearby and faces a daily challenge of survival. By now.

Living in the middle of nowhere?

It was during the annual event of Ramadan when I decided to visit several Bajau communities to deliver essential goods. Although it’s quite obvious that I won’t improve their life for long, at least I might create some smiles on a short-run. Perhaps I can increase awareness for this remarkable folks through my photography or even motivate others to follow up with this idea.

My cultural expedition led to the Islands of Tibba Lanos, Maiga, Selakan, Tara Garos, Nusa Tengah, Mabul and Bodgaya and offered a unique insight into an extraordinary lifestyle. For some of us, kicking back in a home by the sea are picture-perfect holidays. But for the Bajau, life on the water is just a part of who they are. Living in marine homes above shallow waters the Bajau gather in off-shore communities which rely solely on the ocean. Most of the times it was fascinating to realize that their culture has been minimally affected by the world’s dashing globalization. But at times I found myself also feeling quite sad to see the lack opportunities or the poor hygiene standards. I asked quite often if they would like to change anything if they could. I’m aware, that for someone who had never experienced anything different, this is indeed a tough question to respond on. But mostly the answer was „no“. Their isolation has allowed them to continue a simple way of life that their ancestors led. A lot of the Bajau I’ve met are here by choice, the choice to live in the middle of nowhere. Thus, that is why there is no such thing as future thinking, daily survival remains the top priority. Due to the circumstances, this short-term strategy must be taught at a very young age. Bajau children spend a good amount of their time playing at the beach or on their small wooden boats (dugouts), but start learning with 8 years of age (or even younger) how to free dive, swim, hunt, beg some Ringgits from passing tourists and of course how to survive within the environment their parents chose to live in. I’ve spent countless moments just to witness the handicraft skills of this unique communities. A self-taught carpenter easily designs a fishing boat in about a week without any sort of sketch. „These methods have been delivered from generation to generation, it’s in our genes“, explains Nalu, a local Bajau who escaped from the Philippines 26 years ago. The picturesque wooden stilt huts which sometimes host a family of five and sometimes a community with up to 30 roommates are completed within three weeks. The ethnicity even produces an everyday sunscreen called Borak Buas mainly based on rice powder which they use to protect their skin from the strong sun rays. And last but not least, while many sea animals would never make it on fine dining tables, the Bajau just go for it. Hence, they think about the relevance and not the appearance. For example the weird looking sea cucumbers, the Bajau simply see a valuable protein boost or even use it as a medical treatment for diabetes, cancer or as an aphrodisiac.

Locked up in paradise

As my captain navigates slowly through the watery paradise, I get the chance to interact with the Sea Bajau who gather in areas close to the shore, where they feel protected from stormy weathers. Today, Sabah is the only state in Malaysia where the boat dwellers drop anchor, but many more can be found in Southeast Asia, namely Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Myanmar. Their handmade houseboats (lepa lepa) generally accommodates a family up to four or five people. „Rather you than me“, would be the general thought one comes up with when observing the spartan life of the Sea Bajau. To my surprise, some I’ve been chatting to, think the same when watching foreigners passing by. Many Bajau Laut prefer to continue the nomadic way of life and are just happy with what the have. Spontaneously, the families leave their boats and go ashore to trade their extra seafood (mainly fish, lobster, and sea cucumber) to nearby islanders. In return, they will stock up their essentials, collect water or buy cassava for the typical dish called Kasaba Panggykayu. Before sunset, everyone is back on the houseboat again, where communal cooking takes place. I’d be lying if I said everyone lives a happy life out there without feeling the need to improve. I also met those who wish they could call a stilt house their own and I met plenty who were begging for money even after I brought them food, toys or other goods.

In the end of the day, I left the region with mixed feelings. Even though I’m used to meet people who have nothing in common with my way of living, the Bajau were captivating as no other ethnicity I’ve met before. I remember the little Bajau kids who picked flowers for me as a gift, I remember the cheers during the football tournament I organised on a little sandy beach, I remember the sincere smile of a 90-years old lady I handed an orange, I remember the two girls who were laughing tears when I slowly but steadily sunk in my canoe when trying to deliver essentials to their stilt house. Tall westerners are way too clumsy for little canoes.

Images and publications

Enjoy my Bajau Story “Spirited Seafarers” featured in AirAsia’s Travel3sixty March issue (including cover).

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More spreads are waiting here for you – Dailymail / Express / Sun / VICE

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