Bajau Laut

A photoproject documenting the lives of the Bajau Laut

Once a year, I try to go visit the Bajau Laut people in Malaysia. If you haven’t heard of them they are a fascinating and friendly community. They’re people literally living on the sea. They build houses on stilts in the shallow waters of the Celebes sea, and move around with their wooden boats. They’re mainly fishers and live from what the sea has to offer.

The Bajau Laut are estimated to be around 1 million persons living on the waters between the south-western parts of the Philippines and the north-eastern parts of Borneo.

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 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’.

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 exponentially. As a consequence of their nomadic lifestyles, the Bajau Laut have never been recognized by any state. They’re considered illegals wherever they go. Without papers they don’t have many legal rights meaning no access to proper education, work or medical care.

In the urban slums where they live, diseases can spread quickly, especially among 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 among teenagers and young adults. Some N.G.O.’s are present on the mainland offering basic care and education to the people of the Bajau Laut community.