Boatless Badjaos

Badjao houseboat
Badjao houseboat in modern times. (Photo from

I was just telling my neighbor here, Kabsat Kandu, about a chance encounter I had with a Badjao beggar family who were stranded in flooded urban streets, minus their boat.

I was recently in Manila, gulping down my second cup of coffee in a rush to catch an appointment, when someone banged on the steel gate of the old family home (which now housed a printing press) where I was staying. She was waving a letter and shouting in an unfamiliar language. The noisy machine drowned her out, and no one else in the house seemed to want to indulge a visibly desperate beggar.

“My lucky day,” I told Kandu with no trace of irony.

“Your lucky day? Didn’t you say you had to rush to a meeting?” he wondered. “Very busy people wouldn’t give these beggars the time of day or even a passing glance, much less drop a coin into their grimy palms.”


“Ah, but I beg to differ, my friend,” I told Kandu. There’s a simple and productive way to deal with ambulant beggars. I smile at them like long-lost friends, and I chat with them for a few minutes. If I have time, I interview them as intently as I would a respectable official or personality. Then, and only then, do I give them a few coins.

Food for work. Cash for info. Quid pro quo, as they say.

“Works every time, I tell you.” I chide Kandu for being insensitive to a pauper’s plight – never mind that my own tactic is also used cold-bloodedly by jaded reporters, prowling photojournalists, and undercover cops.

A Badjao exodus story 

And so I invited the beggar woman and her daughter to come in. They had barely sat down on the garden bench when I peppered them with buckshot questions:

“What’s your name? Where are you from? Have you eaten? Why are you begging? Where’s your family? Where are you staying? How will you eat for lunch? Did you walk all the way here? Is there someone who collects the money that people give you? Have you asked the help of the church or government?”


Here’s their story, told in broken Tagalog:

Sutea and her 10-year-old daughter Sarah arrived with a boatload of Badjao refugees from Lamitan, Basilan. Armed men said to be Abu Sayyaf had killed her husband, a pearl diver and peddler, and left her with four small children. For some vague reason, the refugee boat landed in Manila and quietly dumped them into the urban jungle.

Now boatless, Sutea said they are sheltered with around 40 other Badjao families in the Baclaran churchyard. They had tried to get help from “SUD” (I think she meant DSWD) but the people there shooed them away. “Mabaho daw kami. (They said we stink.)” Some priests gave them clothes, which they promptly wore in bizarre combinations. (That should drive Parisian designers insane.)

The Badjao know some farming and weaving, lots of sea-faring, fishing and pearl-diving—“Alam ko kumuha ng perlas sa dagat (I know how to dive undersea for pearls),” boasts her daughter Sarah. But these are skills that one wouldn’t wisely put on a job resumé, or practice on flooded streets. So, finding no jobs, they have no choice but to beg for their daily food.


“Hey! What’s that in today’s Cebu Daily News?” Kandu says as he peers over my Internet café screen. “It’s reporting exactly your concern, about giving jobs to itinerant Badjao. Mat-making for export, hmm. Good idea.”

Well, making mats is better than begging, obviously. But something in my gut tells me that many of the Badjao miss their traditional lifeways sailing up and down our Southern coasts, and would like to improve their lot without having to become refugees, beggars and bonded laborers in other people’s lands.

Any public or private initiative to help the Badjao refugees-beggars that we increasingly find on the streets of Davao, Cebu, Manila, and even smaller cities further up north like Baguio, must never presume that they are doing the Badjao a favor by giving them a job, any job, anywhere.


Before anything else, we must all try to understand the history and culture of the Badjao. So I continue to educate my neighbor Kabsat Kandu, who belongs to a minority people but tends to look down on other minorities, especially “if they smell strange.”

The name Badjao (or Bajau) is a Malay-Bornean word that means “people of the seas.” So, it’s understandable that Kandu, a mountain boy, should find their ways strange. “But I’m sure they take daily baths more often than you,” I rib my friend.

Badjao ethnography 101

Actually, Badjao is a name that’s applied to a variety of boat-dwelling and sea-faring peoples with scattered settlements across Southeast Asia: from the Philippines, through eastern and northern Borneo; and from Sulawesi and the Little Sunda Islands of Indonesia, to the Mergui Archipelago off southern Myanmar. This is why Western observers and textbooks have tagged them “sea gypsies.”


“You mean to say, the Badjao were the first OFWs?” Kabsat Kandu asks. “They were already working overseas hundreds of years ago?”

“No, not exactly,” I chuckle at Kandu’s faux naivete. Strictly speaking, the Badjao are not just one people of Philippine origin. They are spread out across Southeast Asia, speaking different languages and practicing different lifeways. In that sense, they are like the Negritos, who are also scattered throughout South and Southeast Asia.

“So which Badjao are we talking about now?” Kandu asks.

From my measly readings, it seems there are two major Badjao groups in the Philippines. First is the Bajau Kagayan, also called Jama Mapun, who live in the Cagayan de Sulu and Bugsuk islands between Palawan and Sulu. Second is the Badjao who call themselves Sama Laut or Sama Dilaut (Sea Sama), which I’m now discussing.

The Jama Mapun and the Sama Dilaut belong to a wider language group called Sama, related to Tausug. The Sama are scattered from the central Philippines to the eastern shore of Borneo, and throughout the Indonesian islands. There are Sama groups that are not sea-faring like the Badjao. They are called Sama Diliya, who are more oriented to land-based livelihoods such as farming, and are more thoroughly Islamicized.


“You mean there’s more where they came from? What if all of them come here to Baguio to beg?” asks Kandu with some alarm.

No, of course not, I assure my friend. Most Badjao have their own lives to live. Don’t forget, these people are sea nomads by tradition. They travel by boat from one island to the next, to fish, to dive for pearl and sea cucumber, to trade. But, yes, they are scattered over a very wide geographic area. They now tend to disperse more and more, and their numbers are dwindling.

The aggregate Sama groups’ total Philippine population, based on a 1994 National Museum survey, is said to be nearly 320,000—with some 118,000 in Sulu and Tawi-tawi provinces, and the bigger number now scattered throughout southern Philippines and nearby Borneo. Some groups have reached Bohol, Cebu, Manila and further north in search of livelihood.


Of the entire Sama population, an estimated 30,000 clearly belong to Sama Dilaut, which is divided into about 20 subgroups, with names associated with specific islands like Bangingi, Pangutaran, Siasi, and Sitangkai. The government cannot count them accurately, since like the Ayta, they are highly mobile and dispersed.

Because of their gypsy-like lifeways, they have been called many things by many people, from Bajau (people of the seas) and Sama pal’au (Sama outcast), to lumaan (neglected) and, yes, mabaho (stinking) by callous urban folk.

Many prehistorians trace the Sama peoples’ original home to the coastal areas and offshore islands of Zamboanga and Basilan. There is evidence that, during the first millennium A.D., the bigger bulk moved south and westward, along the main Sulu archipelago, the Cagayan Sulu Islands, and the eastern Borneo coast. Another group moved north to the Zamboanga-Sibuguey area.


There is also evidence that Sama groups reached the mouth of Agusan river at the other end of Mindanao, perhaps to seek shelter from storms, and eventually mixed with the native Butuanon people. Thus began a steady exchange of spouses, friendly visits and trade, between the Sulu-based Sama and the Agusan-based Butuanon.

In turn, what emerged as the Tausug language is a branch of the Butuanon. According to linguists, another branch struck further north towards Luzon, and probably brought with them the ancestral language of—surprise—Tagalog.

“I don’t believe it!” exclaims Kabsat Kandu. “The Tausug and the Tagalog are related?” In a way, yes. So we Tagalog landlubbers shouldn’t feel so smug when we see our Tausug and Badjao cousins eke out some livelihood in Manila’s streets. We should in fact welcome and embrace them as long-lost kin.

Kabsat Kandu, the mountain tribesman, is speechless as paradigms shift silently inside his head.


Not all Sama-Badjaos live on houseboats. Some Badjao live in ordinary houses on solid ground, others in stilt houses built on shallow coastal waters and linked by catwalks (with easy access to boats), and of course those on houseboats.

“Live in a houseboat? I’d be seasick all the time,” says Kabsat Kandu. Well, at first maybe, but houseboat life sounds most interesting, so let’s focus on that.

Life on houseboats

Badjao houseboats, called lepa, are often in the form of two dugout canoes connected by outriggers, like the catamaran. Typically, each lepa shelters one family and some close relatives. Small groups of families will typically move together, fish and anchor together, and often share food, pool labor and resources, and trade together like desert or forest nomads.

“That’s a nice lifestyle,” Kandu says, reflecting a change of mind. “I can wake up to a new view every morning. It’s exciting to greet new neighbors every day.”

The livelihood and lifeways of the Badjao are finely adapted to life on water. Having to depend on a diverse range of marine life (including pearls and mother-of-pearl for trade), their fishing methods vary with the tides, currents and winds, fish migrations, and the lunar cycle. Some communities also do some inland farming, ironcraft, mat-weaving and wood-carving.

What they can’t produce by themselves, Badjao sea-farers acquire through trade: land-produced foodstuff, clothing, fishing equipment, and materials for boat-building.


“Is it really true that Badjaos throw their newly-born infants into the sea as some form of initiation rite?” Kandu asks.

I tell my neighbor that ethnographers have reported this practice, but I suppose the other family members dive in to return the infant back to its mother. I didn’t have the chance though to ask my Badjao informants whether they still observed this practice.

“I like that ritual,” Kandu says. “It seems the most natural way of introducing a newborn to his lifetime environment.”

I have this exactly in mind as I end my formal garden interview of Sutea, the Badjao mother, and her daughter Sarah.

Their dignified bearing shines through their beggar rags. Allow them to tell you their stories, and the fresh scent of their sea culture can blow away the trash and grime of Manila’s hostile streets. As they stand to leave, they are no longer cadging me for money. They are teaching me the ancient ways of the sea.

Marine Madonna and child don’t deserve my measly 20 pesos, which I reluctantly roll up between fingers inside my pocket. I decide to add another 20 pesos, and feel my guilt instantly grow double, for not being able to do more for these proud, indigenous people. #

This article is a compressed and edited version of a three-part article I wrote in August-September 2006 for my “Pathless Travels” column in Nordis Weekly. Another version, differently abridged, was posted on my GMA News Online blog in November 2009.

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