The Journey of the Badjaos
by: Fr. Eduard Besembun and Dr. Christopher Jay Cortado
“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” – Don Williams
The Philippines boasts not only thousands of beautiful islands and its hospitable people but the diversity of its culture as well. This is where we can say that we are truly blessed. It is a fact that all of us depend so much on the bounties offered not only of the land but also of the sea. This proves that things are interconnected. This should remind us that life should be lived in the pursuit of appreciating sameness and understanding differences.
It is with pride that we give you a glimpse on the journey of the Badjaos of Mindanao.
Our most often encounter with them here in Metro Manila would be in the streets during the Christmas season.
Mr. Rommel R. Aquino, curator/ conservator of the National Historical Commission observes this. He said “when they migrate during Christmas, it does not only happen in Manila, but I have also seen them in Cebu”.
This would always be the same story every now and then – a lady with a baby crossing the streets and asks from people inside vehicles for money or a boy hanging on the jeepney, banging on a makeshift drum some kind of tuneto entice passengers to put a bill or two in the envelopes he or a companion distributed. We have called them different names like beggars and mendicants as they dot the streets of Metro Manila and other parts of Luzon. They have also been seen arriving in large boats going to several places in the Visayas.
Of the limited things that we know about the Badjaos (alternate people name according to joshuaproject.net), we tend to further the stereotypes about them. Their people name in general is either Badjao or Bajau, an indigenous ethnic group of the southern Philippines.
With the many major ethnic tribes in the Philippines, the Badjaos are included as one of the fourteen groups under the Muslim grouping.
The Badjaos are popularly known as the “Sea Gypsies” of the Sulu and Celebes seas. Furthermore, the name Badjao is a Malay- Bornean word which connotes “man of the seas” or Orang Laut in Bahasa Malayo. No wonder that they either live near the sea or build houses on it, or travel using what are called houseboats in going to various places.
.The Badjaos have been considered as nomadic, seafaring people for most of their history and many of them still practice that same lifestyle to this day.
Other historical accounts said that there were Badjaos who have abandoned their traditional lifestyle and began living on land around 200 years ago. They are found now in Sabah, Malaysia.
In the Philippines, they are scattered along the coastal areas of Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, and some-coastal municipalities of Basilan, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Davao City, Cagayan de Oro, Cebu, Tagbilaran, Palawan, and Batangas.
The Badjao population, according to the website of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples as of 2010, is pegged at 115,443. This is divided accordingly with 5,748 from Region VII, 43,431 from Region IX, and 66,264 from the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.
Dr. Antonio Montalvan, an Inquirer columnist, and president of the Mindanao Association of Museums and Head of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts Subcommittee on Cultural Heritage-National Committee on Museums said, “Traditionally they are boat people, so they (the Badjaos of the Philippines) have no sense of land subsistence.”
The Badjaos make a living through fishing. This explains why they are mostly copper-skinned with golden brown hair. Fishing is commonly done by the Badjao men. While the women, attend to the kids. What we don‟t know much is that the Badjaos are known to be a colorful, festive, and musical people. They wear very colorful clothes which are often hand-woven made from traditional fabric partly because they believe that they are royalty. Other historical accounts speak of brides and grooms wearing even more colorful clothing at their wedding. The more highly regarded a woman is the more brightly and colorfully she will be dressed. Offering of a dowry to the Badjao women is also practiced. Arranged marriages are common as well.
The Shades of Marginalization
A lot of negative things have been thrown at the Badjaos. These could be the reasons why they are marginalized or for the most part silent or invisible. They are ridiculed and even ostracized. This is primarily attributed to their migration and the continuous mobility of the group to the extent of begging for alms and imploring mercy of passersby even as far as Metro Manila and even Baguio. Even the Tausugs, who are part of the Muslim group of ethnic tribes, impose their dominance over them. Dr. Montalvan shared that in Sulu, the Badjaos occupy the lowest social rank in society and they are somewhat oppressed by the Tausugs. However, Dinalyn Mancao, a daughter of a Tausug from Ipil, Zamboanga said that “the Tausugs and the Badjaos are not fighting, but there are those who do that”. This only proves that the oppression might just actually be isolated cases but may have been blown out of proportion thereby creating imaginary tension between and among the other ethnic groups of Mindanao.
It has to be emphasized that the perceived identity of the Badjaos by those who don‟t know them that much is considered to be a far cry from what they really are. The Badjaos resisted the colonization of both the Spaniards and Americans many years ago. They were able to preserve their culture against a backdrop of deculturalization from the colonizers. Aside from this are their proven skills in diving and in making boats. Last December 2010, we saw the completion of the balangay expedition as they docked at the Manila Bay after four months of sailing to six destinations in Southeast Asia using ancient navigational methods. The balangay is a pre-hispanic indigenous water vessel. The expedition was led by Arturo Valdez. Behind him and the rest of the team are five men, who were able instrumental in building three replicas of the ancient balangay. They were Ibrahim A. Abdullah, Jubail S. Muyong, Abdul Gamar Abdullah, Sukrie Jauhal, and Junior Mura – all Badjao men.
The peace and order situation and the underdevelopment of certain areas in Mindanao are other reasons why the Badjaos are marginalized. In as much as they wanted to stay at a particular place, they don‟t have a choice. This is why they feel more secure if they are at sea and at the same time travel. Another thing that we don‟t know about the Badjaos is that they are gentle and peace-loving people. This is perhaps the reason why they keep on moving to avoid conflict or confrontation. Aquino said that “aside from the arms conflict, there are certain areas in Mindanao that remains underdeveloped and poverty is experienced. Thus they are lured by the comforts in big cities.”
There is believed to be a growing Badjao community in Navotas City according to Mr. Aquino. “The area mimics their traditional homes in Mindanao, though I have yet to confirm this information.”
They got by in the past with very little interaction with other Filipinos, including indigenous groups like them.
The Colors of Hope
We all believe that we have rights as human beings which go beyond the color of the skin, the language/ dialect we speak and the place we live in.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007 affirms that indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples, while recognizing the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such.
This was also emphasized in Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 which states that:
“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”
And in recognition of these two declarations, the Philippines enacted into law Republic Act 8371 on October 29, 1997, creating the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples. Its mandate is to protect and promote the interest and well-being of the Indigenous Cultural Communities/ Indigenous Peoples (ICCs/IPs) with due regard to their beliefs, customs and institutions.
At the End of the Rainbow
The government cannot do this alone. It should be a concerted effort from all sectors of society. This is why even non-governmental organizations and private organizations have initiated projects together with government to be able to help alleviate the situation of the Badjaos.
The National Sama Badjao Movement is in the forefront of all of these. Its current president is Mr. Nulhamdo Cegales. And as a representative of the Badjaos, he was given a seat in the Zamboanga city council. Mr. Cegales was not available for comment but we were able to closely coordinate with Mr. Aldrin Abdurahim who is connected with the Peace Advocates Zamboanga and Intereligious Movement for Peace – two groups which help the National Sama Badjao Movement. Mr. Abdurahim told us that the National Sama Badjao Movement “is an organization envisioned to eradicate abuses such as malpractices, exploitations, and discriminations perpetrated by non-Badjao culprits”. He also shared with us the objectives of the movement. He said that “we participate in the promulgation of appropriate legislation. This is in order to deliver basic social, political services and community involvement and development and attain harmonious relationships among peoples in the Philippines of diverse cultures and the promotion of cultural heritage”.
The vision and the objectives of the National Sama Badjao Movement can only be realized with the cooperation and help of the Badjaos themselves.
As Dr. Montalvan said, “the Badjaos presence in Philippine society attests to our cultural diversity.”
It is hoped that with these declarations, laws, and efforts of the different sectors, the plight of the Badjaos and the other indigenous peoples of the Philippines and of the world will be given considerable attention — that they will be recognized and respected and be able to find a sense of belongingness and their rightful place in the world.