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"Feeling Landsick", Bajau Sea Gypsies, Borneo (video)

"Feeling landsick", a visual feature for the Sea Gypsies in Borneo and the Bajau tribe.

Feeling Landsick (Feature story)

Borneo is the largest island in Asia and the third largest in the world. It is divided between three countries, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Sabah is in the northern part of the island, where Tawau airport is, three hours flight from Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. From there, it took me about another two hours to get to Semporna, a coastal harbour and a well-known spot for divers.

Few days before I arrived in Semporna, the local newspapers reported about yet another case of kidnapping in the Sulu Archipelago, in Southern Philippines. This incident yet another one in a series of kidnappings carried out during the last years on the east coast of Sabah. The abductees are mainly tourists. The area is controlled by the army and you need to have a special permission in order to access and visit each island in the archipelago.

Omadal island, is one of the smaller islands located in the Celebes Sea. Khai is Bajau, originating from Omadal, but he grew up in the city of Semborna. On our way to Omadal, we meet scattered boats with fishermen and wooden houses built randomly on the sea, far away from the coast. Bajau are one of the last ethnic tribes living in the sea and they are often called “Sea Gypsies”. They are nomads and live either on wooden boats, or in remoted houses built on the sea. Bajaau are excellent divers, with the highest recorded daily apnea time under water and they can reach up to 30 meters deep in order to search for seafood; fish, shells and sea urchins.

We reach Omadal Island after almost two hours. Wooden houses are spread around with colorful material hanging from them Children are playing and swimming in the green, transparent sea. I am visiting one of these houses. A few minutes later I realize that I am surrounded by locals, mainly children and mothers since at this time the men are at sea fishing. I have rice and wafers with me and offer these to the people here.

Two families live in the house that I visit. The house is a small room with one window. Some pots, a few clothes and a fabric hanging from the ceiling that is used as a cradle. The mother prepares seafood for their lunch. I asked her how old she is «I don’t know, probably around 40 years old" she says. She has three children. Her husband is standing in the corner. His face is full of deep wrinkles from the hot sun and in her basket she has a few fish. "This is our food for today. Today, the sea didn’t help us a lot" she says and continues cleaning the fish.

“We wake up early in the morning, the men go fishing and we look after the family and the home. Usually we sell the fish in the city. A good fishing day can give us 10 Ringgit (about 2,5 €), but there are days when we don't even get that.”

I offered some rice to to the mother to thank her for her hospitality and then I headed back towards the island. On my way, I realized that all the food supplies that I had with me on the boat are missing. Probably, some of the children had helped themselves...

Next, I met with the leader of the village. He invited me to sit under the shade of a stretched-out fabric.

“I was born on this island, I don’t want to leave. My father was the leader here, so I inherited the leadership. People here live in peace. We do not need the state to intervene, but if we need their support they will provide. Life is not easy here. Many young people, mainly from the village on the island, move to the city.”

He did not attend school and most of the children do not go to school either. Shortly before I left the village leader asked for medicine. “This is what we need, medicine”.

The houses are connected to each other with wooden platforms or else small boats are used to get from one house to another. In the village, there are a few colourful houses among palm trees, a mosque and the military side where were asked to show our permission for access. An eerie silence prevails around us.  A young girl is following me. I ask her if she attends school and she starts counting in English. A school was built a year ago on the island. Her brothers go to school and she learns a few things from them.

Further down, I met the leader of the village scraping a boat with his son and his grandson. “Lepa festival is in a few days so we are preparing”. “Lepa" means boat in their language. “One German collector wants to buy a Lepa and I hope he will buy mine. The most impressive boat will win. The leader's son is 42 and he has three children. His daughter lives in Kuala Lumpur.

 “I used to work as a fisherman but after a few years I had health issues and I always got sick. Now I work for the military. I miss my daughter, but I want her to be happy. I want her to have a good future and I support her life decision.”

While I was leaving the island, most of the wooden boats that the families live on had returned from fishing. One family invited me onto their boat. The night before a woman had given birth to her second child. She was lying with her new-born baby under the shade.  An older woman, the grandmother, explained to me that now is older daughter’s duty to take care of her mother. The daughter and sister of the new-born baby, is about 14 years old and she was cooking on the other side of the boat with a fire on a cast iron.

“We wake up in the morning, go fishing, and then cook. When the sun goes down we go to bed. This is our life. What else to do here?” she says and laughs. “I do not believe in God, I only believe in the God of the sea” she says and continues “The Sea gives food to me and my family. I don’t want to move to the city. What am I going to do there? There are not many fish. Some young people want to leave, but my home is here, on this boat and has been for so many years.”

There is no precise data for the origin of the Bajau. Most of them are Muslim, with a high illiteracy rate. They spend most of their time on the sea. Some of the younger generation moved and grew up in the city. Elders don’t want to change their sea lifestyle. They feel familiar with the sea and on the land ... they feel “land sick”.

Find more in The multicultural Malaysia & Borneo 

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