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VOL. VII   NO. 2

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IT IS no secret, though, that what most Bajau want is to return to the sea. If they can no longer live there like before, then at least they want to be able to continue to live from its resources. To do that, many Bajau believe they will have to have motorized bancas that will enable them to fish farther into the ocean.

Then again, a motorized banca is no guarantee that they will be able to bring their catch to shore, set aside some for their meals and sell the rest. After all, there are the pirates and bigger boats to worry about even that far in the water, and anything can happen between the time a banca leaves the community and comes back.

Sabiya, Dalpaki's sister, recalls that at one point, she summoned enough courage to borrow P50,000 from a Tausug businessman, just so she could buy a motorized banca. "For three years," she says, "we were not able to pay him a single centavo."

Dalpaki notes that almost all the Badjau in Teheman are indebted to the same Tausug businessman who has been charging high interest rates. "Even until we die, we will not be able to pay our debts," he says.

Dalpaki himself chose not to take out a loan from the businessman when things began to get really desperate for his family. Instead, he went to Manila, where he spent six months trying to sell pearls and corals. He boasts that he even went as far as Baguio and Ilocos. He says, though, that he had to pawn his wife's earrings and necklaces to pay for his fare to Luzon.

"It was hard to survive in Manila," says Dalpaki. "Some of us were forced to beg especially when we could not sell anything." But at least he was able to bring home P5,000, which he used to buy a second-hand motorized banca for fishing.

Asked what he would do if he encounters a pirate, Dalpaki's response is far from what one would expect of a member of a peace-loving tribe. He says, "Many Bajau have been killed because we don't have firearms. But if you give us guns, we are now willing to fight back."

That willingness to take up arms may have come about in part from watching even young Bajau beg for a living. At the ports of Zamboanga and Basilan, for example, hordes of naked Bajau children entice ship passengers to throw coins, which they try to catch as they dive deep into the waters. Some travelers perhaps see the youngsters as daring divers showing off their skills. But the Bajau themselves know these children are beggars at sea.

Yet, eight-year-old Anina doesn't seem to mind the work, or that her long hair has been sun-bleached after numerous dives almost every weekend. She says, "We usually get P10. On good days, when there are many commuters, we get P40 pesos."

Fourteen-year-old Absari, meanwhile, has gone as far as Manila to join her grandmother and other Bajau in begging. For three months, she braved dark, cold nights sleeping on the pavement outside the Baclaran church. She says that if they were "lucky," they would get as much as P100 a day. They would then buy some fish for dinner, and whatever was left they bet at card games with fellow Bajau beggars.

Academic Roxas-Lim urges that policy implications on how to deal with marginalized social sectors should include the Bajau. "The plight of the Bajau can serve as the litmus test of how well our so-called democratic system and our national patrimony and the environment are faring," she argues in her study, "Marine Adaptations and Ecological Transformation: The Case of the Bajau and Samalan Communities."

She observes that the Bajau's political participation is almost nil. And when they do participate in elections, they are either relegated to voting for predetermined candidates or caught in the crossfire of feuding political factions and political dynasties.

In this year's elections, Sabiya confesses that they had "no choice" but to participate. "The Tausug businessman has already commissioned us to vote for certain politicians," she says. "We're afraid that if we do not heed his request, we will no longer be able to borrow money from him."

The Bajau are under no delusion that the polls will bring any change to their lives. Says Dalpaki: "It is better that we don't vote because we don't get anything from government anyway."

He points out that in 1999, the Department of Social Work and Development turned over P120,000 to the local government of Maluso as development fund for the Bajau of Teheman. "But not a single centavo came to us," says Dalpaki. "For some strange reason, the money got lost along the way."

"People come to talk to us about our problems but nothing has happened," says his neighbor, Marriam. "We still have no boats. Just listen to the song of Furaydah. If you will understand, you will know our story and you will not talk to us anymore."

But Furayda's singing is interrupted by the distinct crack of a rifle. A child starts crying.

Marriam says to the visitors, "Don't worry. Go to sleep now. We will know tomorrow who it is this time. It's normal here. People get killed."

Her husband quickly admonishes her, "Hush, don't frighten them. They will still have to write our story."

Copyright 2001 All rights reserved.