Aku Bajau

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The People

The Bajau Laut, a community of people estimated to be around 1 million persons live on the seas between the south-western parts of the Philippines and the north-eastern parts of Borneo. For those still living in the traditional ways, their lives are spent on shallow blue green waters surrounded by  islands.

 

I met the Bajau Laut in Malaysia, on the north-eastern side of Borneo. Often called nomads of the sea, or sea gypsies, the Bajau Laut have evolved to become exceptional sea hunters with an exceptional lung capacity. It's told that even their sight has adapted to see better under water. While nowadays most of them live on stilt houses, some families still live on boat-houses called 'Lepa'. Those Bajau Laut are accustomed to be on the water all the time to the point that whenever they go ashore, they can’t stay for too long, because they experience ground sickness. Eventually when food gets scarce in the area where they currently stay, they move to another more fruitful area.


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Modern society, cultural assimilation and political instability

Modern society, cultural assimilation and political instability has had its toll and forced many of the Bajau Laut to adapt their ancestral customs. They give up their traditional ways of living and join the shores of the mainland in Borneo. There, urban slums built on water are growing. As a consequence of their nomadic lifestyles, the Bajau Laut have never been recognized by any state. They're considered as illegals wherever they go. Without any papers they don't have any legal rights: no access to proper education, work or medical care. In the urban slums where they live, diseases spread quickly, especially amongst the youngest ones. Work is scarce and many children go beg in the streets, a situation that makes them vulnerable. Glue sniffing is a also a common problem amongst teenagers and young adults. Some N.G.O.'s are present on the mainland offering a basic education to the youngest children.