Known as “sea gypsies” or “sea nomads”, the Bajau people of the south-western Philippines and Indonesia live their entire lives on the sea. They inhabit amazing villages built on stilts in the middle of the ocean.
Sama-Bajau is a collective term, used to describe several closely related indigenous people who consider themselves a single distinct Bangsa (“ethnic group” or “nation”). They never call themselves “Bajau” in the Philippines. Instead, they call themselves with the names of their tribes, usually the place they live or place of origin.
For example, the sea-going Sama-Bajau prefer to call themselves the Sama Dilaut or Sama Mandilaut (literally “sea Sama” or “ocean Sama”) in the Philippines; while in Malaysia, they identify as Bajau Laut.
Much like sea sickness for those who live on land, the Bajau experience ‘land sickness’ when they leave the water. They come to shore to barter their harvests for farmed produce such as fruits and cassava, as well as, replenish their supplies and/or make repairs to their houseboats. Unique to their cultural rituals is the concept of life and their relationship to the sea: For example, as a childbirth ritual, a newly born infant is thrown into the sea and members of the clan dive to save the newborn.
The narrow canoes they use to navigate the ocean are called pirogues and they are fashioned from a single tree trunk.
Instead of learning about algebra or science, the Bajau children are given a net and taught to catch fish, octopus, and lobsters off their unique handmade boats.
Every day the children get on their handmade pirogue, and equipped with a net and lance, they go off on the search for food. These amazing people are so at home in the water that their bodies have physically adapted to it, giving them better underwater vision and the ability to hold their breath for up to five minutes while free-diving for their dinner.
The Sama-Bajau in the Sulu Archipelago were historically discriminated against by the dominant Tausūg people, who viewed boat-dwelling Sama-Bajau as ‘inferior’ and as outsiders.
Even when their fragile, driftwood settlements are decimated in the typhoon season, or ransacked by pirates, they just take to their boats and start to build a new house.