Tribes from Mindanao, the Badjao, Sea Gypsies.
Text and images by Ronald de Jong
or Bajau means man of the seas, this tribal group is known as the Sea Gypsies because they move with the wind and the
tide on their small houseboats called vintas, they can be found in many coastal settlements and inhabit the waters and shores
of the Sulu archipelago.
A legend tells that these boat dwellers came from the shores of Johore
in Indonesia, Princess Ayesha of Johore was betrothed to a Sulu Sultan but she really wanted to marry the Sultan from Brunei.
One day, a large fleet of war boats escorted the Princess to Sulu, the fleet was intercepted by the man she really loved,
the Sultan from Brunei, who kidnapped her and set sail back to Brunei. The escorting fleet could not return without the Princess
and kept on sailing the seas, only mooring at uninhabited islands; some of them turned to piracy and roamed the seas to search
for fortune and glory. Others only searched for food and became fishermen, the Sulu Sea had an abundance of fish that helped
to sustain their livelihood, and most of the daily catch was bartered with other tribes that lived along the shores and beaches.
The Badjao still live in houseboats, clustered near the coastline of Southern Mindanao. But they also built stilt houses near
fertile fishing grounds; these houses are a temporary refuge during times that these boathouses needed repairs. These wanderers
of the Southern seas are born on the water, live on their boats and say they will only set foot on land to die.
Although that their ancestors were once feared
by many in the Mindanao region, the Badjao are primitive and friendly, they are believed to be world's most peace-loving people
and consider themselves as a non-aggressive tribal community. Conflict with other tribes is often dealt with by fleeing to
other places like the sea. Other tribes looked down on these fisher folk and did refer to them as palao or lumaan
(God forsaken), the Badjao were influenced by Islam, but the continuous pressure put on by other Muslim tribes forced them
to move to the sea, which gave them greater chances of escape in the case of an attack by hostile tribes. Eventually the sea
moulded the attitude and appearance of the Badjao, this rough environment and way of living shaped their typical physical
features, the bronze coloured hair and dark brown skin clearly distinct them from other tribes.
The native religion from these water people is a form of ancestor worship,
spirits, deceased ancestors and other relatives are asked for favours during frequent cemetery visits. They offer cigarettes
and food and sweet smelling tonic is used for sprinkling the corners of the graves. These spirits are still part of the family;
the seafarers of the Philippine South want these sprits to be as happy as the living and will therefore comfort them as much
as they can. Some of the traditional pre-Islamic beliefs are offerings made to the God of the Sea, the Omboh Dilaut, whenever a large catch of fish is brought in and by setting a "spirit boat" adrift in the open sea,
, mediums are also called upon to remove illness causing spirits from this boat-dwellers community in times of epidemics.
By tradition, the hardworking and proud Badjao people are sea nomads,
travelling by boat from one island to the other in search of fishing harvest. This tribe have sailed the seas for more than
a thousand years, but because of over fishing by other groups using everything from high-tech fishing trawlers and even dynamite
fishing, threatened by soaring costs for fuel and repairs, their life in the open waters is drying up. These Bedouin of the
sea no longer live on boats, they live in thatch-roofed houses on bamboo stilts on a small strip of land that nobody else
wanted, somewhere along the coastline of Sarangani. With small, family owned bancas they continue to roam the waters, fighting
the current to follow schools of fish, hunting for the bounty of the ocean, trying to make a living and find refuge in the
vastness of the deep blue sea.
Despite the romantic portrayals of the tribe, the Badjao never really
had an easy live, when they were still living at sea, they were at least free from the everyday rejection and hardship brought
upon by other tribes that live on land. These guardians of the sea have experienced themselves that times are tough on the
water, but worse on land. At present the Badjao are the most marginalized ethnic group and one of the poorest tribes in the
Philippines, a Muslim tribe that is shunned by almost everyone, still gypsies, but also, unfair and unjustifiable named tramps
and thieves. Their vibrant nomadic lifestyle, the way of life bequeathed to them by their ancestors has vanished in most parts
of Mindanao. For centuries the Badjao have been a resilient tribal group, they firmly pushed away modernity with both hands,
but tossed by modern winds they will have to find ways to maintain their unique lifestyle and culture, otherwise they will