:: Sonner la cloche anthropologique :: Ringing the anthropological bell ::
:: Die ethnologische Glocke läuten :: Tocar la campana antropológica ::

The Badjao People of Palwan Island

By Antonio Graceffo

Very few people outside of the Badjao community speak their tribal language. But somehow, you just know when someone is screaming, “Shark! Shark!” I scrambled up the boats armor, nearly tipping it over, making me feel like a ten-ton elephant out of water. Jaji, the boat owner, and head of the family calmly stowed his spear gun, as he eased himself onto the deck. The entire family had a good laugh at the guy from Brooklyn, who had never swam with sharks before. Jaji later said that he estimated the shark to be two meters long. “We will fish somewhere else.” He said, and set the boat in motion.

The Badjao settlement in Puerto Princesa, is a ramshackle village of wooden huts, built on stilts, over the water. The streets are bridges, made of wooden planks with uncertain footing. In places the boards are rotted through. In others, they are completely missing. The most misleading are the ones where, if you step on the middle you are fine, but if you step on the ends, you will go for a swim. Under no circumstances would you want to fall into the murky waters below. The tide pool under the village serves as a source of fish, a toilet, a washroom, shower, and a recreational swimming pool for children. At low-tide, the sand is a reeking thick black sludge, littered with plastic snack wrappers and pop bottles.
Traditionally the Badjao were a nomadic seafaring people, originating from the Samal Tribe, on the island of Mindenao, in the Philippines. They spend most or even all of their time on their boats, thus they are often referred to as Sea Gypsies. Sea Gypsy, however, is a very lose description, given to many unrelated ethnic groups. The Badjao are, for example, not related to the Mogen People, the Sea Gypsies of Surin Island, Thailand.

Down a particularly precarious alley in the maze of bamboo houses, we made a stop at the Badjao Daycare Center, where a dedicated teacher, named Nasuraya, teaches 45 wonderful Badjao children. The children were all bright-eyed and excited to see strangers in their classroom. Nasuraya encouraged them to greet us in Philippine language, which, according to Marifi, my guide and translator, they all spoke perfectly.

Nauraya explained that many Badjao children missed school during periods when their parents put out to sea. “Sometimes they just move away.” She said. “They are nomadic. This is normal for them.” Nauraya was, herself Badjao, but she was a born-again Christian, who had graduated university in Mindenao. She came to live in the settlement seven years earlier and was clearly dedicated to helping the Badjao children learn as much as they could during the periods they were in school. “I only speak Philippine language to them.” She stressed. “And I am strict. When I tell them to write, they know they need to write.”

According to Nauraya, the children faced a number of health problems. “Diarrhea is probably the most common illness. It comes from the dirty water.” The other major problem was dietary. “They don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables.”

From my own observation, they seemed to exist on a diet of only fish and rice.

The Badjao children appeared to be smaller than Philippine children. Many people in the community had an unhealthy look. Bad skin and bad teeth seemed to be common in the community.

The Badjao are nominally Muslim, the majority religion in Mindenao. In talking to them, however, it was clear that they had little or no knowledge of the religion. When I asked if they were Sunni and Shiite, I met was met with blank stares. Nauraya did confirm that the Badjao refrained from eating pork, and that boys were circumcised at about the age of thirteen. “It depends on the family, when it is done. But they don’t have a big festival where the boys are circumcised all at once. It is done individually.”

“Some Badjao families have 10-12 children.” Said Nauraya.

The families earn their living, almost exclusively, from fishing, diving for pearls, and harvesting sea products.

“The children can dive very well.” Nauraya told me. “When tourist boats come, they throw coins in the water and the children dive for them.”

Albatya, the daughter of the former tribal chieftain, took over as head of the community when her father died, several years earlier. Vague about the year, she explained “We came here during the Marcos regime, to work as pearl divers for a rich family. But we don’t work for them anymore. ”

According to Albataya, the community do not observe the Saturday rest. “After we return from the sea, we usually rest two or three days. But it has nothing to do with the religion.” For the most part, neither men nor women kept their heads covered. They also didn’t pray five times per day. “Most pray once a day and twice on Friday, when we go to the mosque. But now, a lot of the young ones don’t even go on Fridays.” For those who attended mosque, men and women prayed in separate sections of the room, with a curtain separating them. The mosque was simply one more bamboo house on stilts, with a loud speaker to call people to prayer.

The government has announced its intention to move the community to a more hygienic location. Albataya said, “We love Palawan. We don’t mind being relocated, but please tell them we need to live near the sea.” She went on to explain. “We don’t know how to live on land. We don’t know how to farm, and we don’t know the culture.”

Albataya told us that she, like much of the community, couldn’t read or write. When asked how she read the Koran she said, “We don’t have one.” When asked if they observed Ramadan, she answered. “We live different than other Muslims. Our culture is different. We don’t have much contact with other Muslims. We even have our own mosque. The only time we have contact with others is when they invite us to special programs, but that doesn’t happen too often because they know we are different. A lot of families just worship in their home, with their elders running the worship service.”

At the entrance to the Badjao community I met a young man named Hanza, the son of the Imam. He was considered a messenger of god, teaching the Badjao People. According to Hanza, more than 95% of Muslims in the Philippines were Sunni. “The Badjao don’t know the basic pillars of Islam.” He said. “They don’t know about Mecca or making the Hajj. And of course, they would never be able to because of financial constraints.” At a nearby madrasa 85 students, both boys and girls, were studying. Not one of them was Badjao. “We have some special programs, from time to time, when the madrasa students come over to teach the Badjao.” Hanza lamented on how difficult the Arabic language was to learn. “The Department of Education has a program to add basic Arabic studies to the school curriculum, so the Muslim children will be able to learn faster. But it is very basic. Takes years to be able to speak.”

Hanza confirmed that they were also teaching Muslim martial arts such as Silat and Kuntaw. When I asked if I could participate, he became extremely suspicious. “Why do you want to know about that? Are you from the Army?”

I explained again that I was a journalist and very interested in martial arts and ethnic minorities, but he didn’t buy it.

Albataya and Jaji had agreed to take me diving with them if I would cover the 500 Pesos cost of petrol. The next morning, when I walked out of my hotel, there were Jaji and Albatay, waiting for me. They had walked, barefooted, all the way from their settlement, carrying an empty petrol canister. I was on my way with security officer Oliver, Jaji, Albatay, and five children, ranging in age from 3 year-old Jasper to 13 year-old Sadam.

Along the way, we stopped at a gas station where I handed Jaji the 500 Pesos I’d promised. Showing who was boss, he immediately handed the money to Albataya, who bought snacks for all of the children. The Kids were going crazy, eating these store-bought treats which were obviously a rare windfall for them. I pulled out my camera and suddenly, the whole village wanted their photo taken. In particular, they asked me to photograph their babies.

Watching the children run along the gunwales and jumping from boat to boat, while eating their candy, I was amazed at their incredible agility, and balance. More than anything, I was amazed at how fearless they were. But why not? This was their world. And I was just a visitor.

As we pulled away from the village, I saw how ingenious the Badjao were, and how adept they were at reusing garbage and turning it into something useful. There was a large fishing raft, made of bamboo, supported by pontoons of fishing nets stuffed with Styrofoam containers and plastic bags. Our boat was itself a Gilligan’s Island technological marvel. The Badjao typically used long, slender boats, which were then modified. They turned them into outriggers by attaching bamboo armor on both sides. Boards were laid across the armor to be used as sleeping spaces. An old tarp strung across the rigging was the sun shield. The cross piece of the anchor was also homemade, made of wood.

The boys had a pair of homemade, wooden swim fins. Jaji was wearing a pair of wooden goggles, held on with a piece of string. His spear gun was also homemade. The shaft, approximately a meter and a half long, was carved from wood. The deadly weapon utilized a large rubber band for propulsion. The trigger was made of a bent piece of wire-like metal. The fishing line was held fast with a one-way plastic tie.

Jaji made a joke that I took up most of the room in the boat. Oliver laughed, but then I asked him “How can you be my security guard if I am bigger than you?” But as Oliver pointed out, there is almost no crime in Puerto Princesa.

As the oldest male, 13 year old Osama was expected to help steer the boat. He spent much of the journey sitting on the bow, tending an oar, which he controlled by wrapping his leg around it. He also followed after Jaji, learning to dive and fish. It was strange for me to be in the open sea with no life preserver, no buoyancy compensator, no tank, not even mask, snorkel, and fins.

The children were constantly in and out of the water swimming fearlessly. Even little Jasper, at three years old, was swimming and learning to dive.

“I am amazed.” I told Oliver.
“This is the life of the Badjao.” He pointed out.
“Still, I would like to take these kids to the sports complex and get them on the Puerto Princesa swim team.”

Jaji was also impressive. Osama and I swam behind him, but were soon lost. He dove impossibly deep. We tried to follow him down, but the pressure on my ears was immense. I am a good swimmer, but I have never dived to depth without scuba gear. Jaji swam to the bottom and remained there. He simply walked on the bottom, holding his speargun as if he were hunting in the forest. Then, THWACK! He shot a fish in mid swim. He surfaced and tossed the fish in the general direction of the boat. The five year old boy, as agile as a monkey, sprang out on the armor and dangled, swinging from branch to branch. He retrieved the fish with one hand and swung back with the other proudly laying it at Albatya’s feet.

Jaji told us that in half a day of spear fishing they can get 20 kg of fish. They sell it for 700 pesos and pay 300 for gas. That leaves them 400 Pesos for the whole family. And again families often have as many as twelve children. The fathers don’t fish every day. So the families are extremely poor.

Albataya said none of the children could read. They went to school for a while but had to stop because the family couldn’t afford the 600 Pesos a year tuition. She said they also Find pearls, but a whole necklace sells for 150 Pesos, and obviously, it requires a lot of pearls to make a single necklace.

By the end of our short excursion Jaji had shot two good sized fish and a type of huge blowfish with poisonous spines. According to Oliver, the family can remove the skin and eat the fish. It was the prize of the day.

When asked why I wasn’t married I said that back on my island, Brooklyn, an Italian man couldn’t get a wife till he had found one thousand pearls. Luckily on our voyage we didn’t find even one.

Still single and certain I didn’t want become a fisherman, I signaled that it was time to go home. Along the way, I looked in the happy faces of Jaji and his family. They were extremely poor and their lives were so simple, but maybe because of that simplicity they had a freedom and peace that most of us will never know. We spend thousands of dollars for a fishing vacation in a tropical paradise. Jaji and his family live like that every day.

Antonio Graceffo is an adventure writer living in Asia. He is the author of four books, available on His work appears in numerous magazines around the world. Contact: see Antonio’s website

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"4 years of living dangerously"

Pulp Anthropology! Loving it, thanks dude.

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