Sea Gypsies, Social Standing and the Rat Race

DSCF6912I took this photo during our most recent trip to Basilan.

If you’re not too familiar with these floating cottages, they’re traditional Bajau houses— abodes on stilts, made almost entirely out of driftwood. These houses forthrightly reflect the lifestyle of the nomadic people who live in them: simple, close-knit and pretty much wedded to the ever-changing whims of the ocean. Bajau communities of old were even more noteworthy; families lived in small boats called lepa-lepa. Traveling in a flotilla, they traded with strangers from lands faraway and bartered their bounty of fish for fruits, trepang for cloth, pearls for sacks of rice.

This proud race of boat people, collectively known as the Sama-Bajau, with their close affinity to the sea, had apparently evolved into real-life superhumans. They were endowed with an unparalleled free-diving prowess that enabled them to sustain incredible amounts of time underwater, making them excellent spearfishers and pearl hunters.

The majority of the Bajaus lead a nomadic lifestyle, thus most of them are illiterate and poverty-stricken. As a result, the dominant Tausug people often subject them to discrimination, who consider the “nomadic, boat-dwelling lifestyle” uncouth and inferior. Despite this, the Bajaus consider themselves hospitable and peace-loving people, avoiding conflicts when necessary.

Then came the armed conflict in the Sulu archipelago, the anchorage of the sea gypsies.

The Bajaus fled from their Neptunian territories, forcing them into a diaspora. They sought refuge in urban settlements– on the streets– a far cry from their usual waterworld. The poor Bajaus, illiterate and unknowledgeable of the city’s tricks of the trade, were left with no choice but to subsist on begging. At one fell swoop, the shipbuilding virtuosi, the mythical merfolks, the esteemed masters of maritime affairs– were stripped of their powers and reduced into helpless vagabonds.

The proud race of the Sama-Bajau people, the noble lineage of sea gypsies who never relinquished its heritage for the colonizers’ promise of civilization, has become but a shadow of its former glorious self.

It’s sad how we, the “cultured” city dwellers, could easily judge a mendicant begging for alms on the streets. Sad how we would easily associate the word “Bajaus” with theft, indolence, crudity and impudence. Sad how we put ourselves on the upper echelons of the social pedestal and regard ourselves very highly that we choose to forget how to treat others fairly, how to help the disadvantaged, how to alleviate the pain of the suffering, and how to be essentially… human.

We have become a society obssesed with our own personal successes. A society in a fierce competition, with a common goal to outwit, outplay and outlast one another. We have totally forgotten the nurturing and caring nature of our humanity– instead, we programmed ourselves with an insatiable desire to acquire, destroy and consume. We run in this pointless rat race– where everyone finishes anyway.

The next time you see a Bajau child hitching a ride on the jeepney, drumming away with his makeshift tambol for a providence of a mere loose change, would you again turn a blind eye, scoff at his filthy presence, and ignore his needs for sustenance?

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