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Date [ 2015-03-11, 13:55 ]
 Tears of Bajau, the gypsies in the ocean, Part 2
 
 
(Kuala Lumpur=Koreanpress) Kim Kyoung-Tae = The Bajau people are longing for the comforts of civilization that is just in front of their eyes. 
The Bajau and Soro are illegal immigrants, living the life of floating gypsies, hovering on the coastal borders of three countries - Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. This nomadic life is now under threat with the sea gypsies in danger of losing their homes where they have lived for hundreds of years.
 
My stay with them for seven straight days was a real life long experience which I will never forget. It has also revealed to me what it is that these people really want at this point in time.
About 20 Bajau families live on the sea near big or small islands that are a 30-minute or 1 hour boat ride from Semporna port in Sabah. The reason why they have to live near Semporna is mainly for economical reasons. Anchored near Semporna, they do not have to travel far in their small boats and so conserve their petrol consumption. Next, Semporna serves as their only outlet to sell the catch of their day and then use the money from the sale of the fish sold to buy their daily necessities
I asked a boat owner who can speak the Malay and Bajau languages to take me to 10 of  the islands and to start with Pulrugaya Island. This would give me the opportunity to study their way of life and also get a feel of living in a floating house.
Next morning, the  captain and I headed to Pulrugaya Island. Nearing the island, we transferred to a non-motorized boat as the water level was very low closer to the island. Soon we came up against a village with their floating homes bobbing slowly on the sea.. As usual children were rowing their small boat up to us and asking “Minta Duit(Please give me some money).”
I shared cookie with them, hoping to get into their good books. So I looked around hoping to catch a friendly face. All I saw was lady wearing a red cloth on her head and with white burac on her face. (Burac is white powder made with certain dried leaves and glutinous rice) With her sat a child with a smile, in their floating home. The floating house is made with felled tree and consists of a small room with a ceiling. The home is bordered with a platform and serves as an outdoor space. It is normal for the Bajau to have 7 or 10 persons living in just one room. 
I asked the captain to enquire whether it would be possible to spend a night at her home. 
The lady’s husband did not allow me to do so. I then asked him if it would be alright to stay outdoor on the platform, with his permission of course! I moved my luggage in quickly, before he could change his mind. 
Once in, next came the task of being formally introduced to the house owner.  His name is Solbi, his wife is Dwinyang and two sons, are aged 6 and 10 respectively. I asked Solbi his wife’s age but they both did not know. I then realized they do not have a concept of age and the disposition of their inner-self while I was talking to Solbi about the Bajau as a people. All they know is their  language, how to fish and survive at sea, things that they had learnt from their parents. 
I noticed the tide had gone out and the seabed was just a mud-filled flat. Children were going out and catching clam now. But when the sun began to set, the tide rolled in and the houses were once more afloat.
I was alerted to dinner with the bright sparks from the burning charcoal in the brazier at the corner of the floating house. I was given to eat Ubi Kayu. This is fermented tapioca flour and seems to be a staple food of the Bajau. Fish caught that day by Solbi was added to my dinner. Agar Agar(sort of Ceylon moss) is the only vegetable they eat. 
Water is a valuable commodity here, so they collect a bucket of 30 liters of groundwater every morning from a nearby island. They have to use 30 liters of water per day for cooking, drinking and bathing, Therefore they use seawater for dish washing. The kids too are bathed with seawater except for the final pour, when groundwater is used. 
A jet black night had descended at 7pm. There was complete silence in the darkness as there was no electricity. I had no idea of how I was going to sleep after moving my luggage in. The outdoor platform was flimsy with only a few boards, some of which were broken and gave me nightmares of falling into the sea below. There were no ceiling and shelter from the wind, so the best I could do was cover  myself with two sheets of thin bath towels. 
There were a thousand shining stars above my head as I Iay down and looked up into the night sky. Far away I could hear the booming of the sea on the reefs. A gentle breeze had begun from the seaward side and brushed my ear and face ceaselessly. I could not go to sleep, fearful of placing my hands wrongly and plunging into the sea below.  Finally in the early morning light, the Bajau village began to stir with life. 
 
Every man in the village looked busy, preparing to go fishing at 6 am. I needed to go to the toilet but did not know where it was located. After a while, one child came out and deposited  a dump at place at a space with a hole. I realized that was the hole I had been sleeping over last night. I was a bit embarrassed and I asked how he solved his toilet problem, He said all he did was have a long skirt like-cloth around him while he relieved himself at the same spot where the hole was. The sea was certainly wide but sometime had the habit of refloating all that dunk back to the Bajau village. Not a pretty sight really.
Solbi’s family ate a handful of Ubi Kayu for breakfast and was ready to go fishing.  I also made Malaysian Instant noodles- Maggie mee prepared as emergency food by using the oil burner. They were looking at me with a smile, and I gave Solbi some  noodles. But I soon I shouted “It’s the  wrong way to eat.” I could do nothing to stop him as he was very fast in putting the noodles in a cup and pouring cold water over it. He said he had eaten noodles that way before and it had been delicious. Solbi did not use the noodle powder as he intended to use it another time. Everything in life is precious here.  
I also followed him for fishing after breakfast. There were only three items for fishing- the harpoon, traditional swimming goggles made of wood and a small log for carrying two persons. 
A Bajau catch will depend on the size of his fishing boat, which can net bigger catches, bring in more and change his life for the better. The profits can be used to catch anchovy, tuna, shark, octopus, lobster and other big fish. But a large capital is needed for this type of fishing so most of the Bajau stick to traditional fishing. 
Solbi has spent six hours per day to catch a fish by using the traditional Bajau method. While he fished, I peer down to an approximate depth of 5 to 7m. Riding on the log with Solbi, I could see below corals and colourful rocks in the clear seawater. Stopping for a while, Solbi told me there were so many fishes, he was going to jump in and he did with his goggles and harpoon. 
After a while he caught a porcupine fish, an octopus and others whose names I did not know. He next makes another 5km paddle before stopping to take a rest. I was surprised that he can hold his breath and catch with a heavy harpoon in deep dives with ease. He was truly another creature of the sea.
No big fishes were caught. Instead the dugout was filled with various sizes of fish, from medium to small. He can sell the big fish at Semporna but small fishes have to be dried first and then sold all together as a batch. It is ridiculous that oil costs are more than the price of fish. 
When it is sunset, Solbi said he can catch big fish and would go line fishing with a needle. Finally he came back with a really big fish. He thought it would be worth around 150 ringgit(S$55), so he was pleased with his prize catch.



 
We went to Semporna, taking a small motorboat with Solbi’s wife in order to sell the big fish and also dried fish. The fish wholesaler weighed the fish and said it was 15kg. Solbi seemed confused when the fishmonger said he would pay 5 ringgit per kg and went to get the money. Solbi said the big fish was 20kg at home but still he did not protest or complain. I checked the scale and discovered it was rigged. The actual weight was 23kg when I checked the weight of the fish again. 
I finally got paid for 20kg without the weight of the basket being included when I and not Solbi, complained.  I probably think wholesalers cheat Bajau people as they feel the Bajau are illegal immigrants and so may not have much recourse to get justice. This is one reason why it is urgent the Bajau get Malaysian citizenship. They can then make sure they are not exploited any further.
Solbi bought only necessities that they really need and did not spend much money. I recommended that we buy more with my money, but they said they would rather get real cash than necessities 
It is usual for the Bajau to come to land to get the necessities. Some of them who make the transition to a life on land and a modern life find it hard to adapt and so return to the sea. It is ironic that though they have been long time residents of the sea, they are still considered as illegal immigrants.
One way they may be able to obtain Malaysian citizenship is if they pay 10,000 ringgit (S$3,850) to the Sabah government. But it will be almost impossible for someone like Solbi to get that much money even if he sells fish for a lifetime. They are just saying “Minta Duit” without any constraint while they go around their whole life without the remotest desire to improve it. Meanwhile they repeat countless times of their escape across the border of another country to avoid its police patrol boats. 
I had to say goodbye to the Bajau after three days in Solbi’s floating house. I gave them some necessities which I had prepared before coming here. Solbi was touched beyond words, crying and looking at our boat as it disappeared over the horizon. / john@koreanpress.net

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