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The Sea Gypsies Come Ashore

By David Haldane

July 1, 2024


The joke made me cringe.

“Are you a goodjau or a Badjau?” my companion asked the pretty young girl standing in the parking lot with an outstretched hand.

To my utter astonishment, she shot us a gamely grin. “I’m a goodjau,” she said. Apparently, she had heard the joke before. And so we gave her all our spare change.

In Northern Mindanao where I live, the Sama-Badjau (also spelled Bajau or Bajo) are ubiquitous. You see them everywhere, but especially in the parking lots of restaurants and malls or strolling along the seaside boulevard where they’re sure to catch a crowd. Easily identified by their distinctive yellow, red, gold, and black native garb, they are almost always young, female, and begging for money.

Sometimes they carry babies or are surrounded by small children pressing fingers to their lips in a universal gesture of hunger. But always they look forlorn, piercing the hearts of passersby with beseeching looks that are hard to deny.

It wasn’t always so.

The first time I saw these colorful indigenous people was nearly two decades ago off the coast of southern Mindanao’s Zamboanga City, and oh, what a difference! They lived in boats with sails the same bright colors as their garb. A nomadic tribe subsisting mainly on fishing, the women would come ashore only occasionally to sell the colorful weavings for which they were famous. Once I bought one that, for many years, decorated a wall of my Southern California home.

But, alas, things have changed for these so-called “sea gypsies.” It began as early as1915 when ruling American colonialists dissolved the Sultanate of Sulu, a Sunni Muslim state that, for five centuries, had acted as the Bajau’s patron. More recently, these gentle souls have experienced discrimination and even violence at the hands of the region’s majority Tausug people, most of whom share their Muslim faith but consider them uncivilized outsiders.

And so a great number of the country’s estimated 500,000 Bajaus, hoping for better lives, have migrated north to Palawan, the Visayas, southern Luzon and, yes, my own Surigao City. The problem is that they left their boats behind. And so, strangers in a strange new place, many must now beg on the streets or rely on government subsidies just to get by.

“To those who study the Bajo, there’s little question the culture is increasingly assimilating to life on land and losing touch with its nomadic, seafaring past,” the New York Times reported in a recent article entitled Seafaring Nomads Settle Down Without Quite Embracing Life on Land.

Focusing mostly on Indonesia—home to the world’s third largest Bajau population behind the Philippines’ largest—the article quotes a researcher in Thailand regarding the group’s changing culture. “The Bajo we see today are not the Bajo that we used to know,” Wengki Ariando, a researcher at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told the newspaper. The sad thing, he said, is that “they have lost their identity.”

And yet some vestiges of it remain.

The first Bajaus I ever saw in Surigao, actually, were young boys swimming alongside my ferryboat as it arrived from Cebu. Their game: begging delighted passengers to throw coins, for which they would dive using homemade masks and fins.

Whether consciously or not, those young divers were mimicking an important part of traditional Bajau culture, namely free diving with spearguns for fish. In fact, the Bajau became so adept at it over the centuries that they are believed to be endowed with enhancing genetic adaptations such as enlarged spleens, allowing them to extend their dives.

So, what does all this mean to an old landlubber like me?

Just that the next time I see a Bajau with her hand out, I’ll think twice before turning away. And secretly pray that somehow these beautiful people will one day find their way.




David Haldane is an award-winning American journalist, author, and columnist with homes in Southern California and Northern Mindanao. His latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon. This column appears weekly in The Manila Times.


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