The sea gypsies of Tawi Tawi

'If in Manila, Badjaos are a street nuisance, in Tawi Tawi they are the baby’s breath that compliments the beauty of a bouquet of roses'

Christmas is just around the corner, as the cliché goes, and so is the time to see frizzy haired and poorly groomed women and children in the streets all over the country begging for money and other “Christmas treats.” 

I have to admit they get the better of me sometimes when they would carelessly cross the busy city streets without regard for everyone’s safety, just to run after the cars of those who had given something to one of their own.

Who are these Christmas migrants? 

All I know are a few facts, such as they are called “Badjaos” and are from the islands of Mindanao. What is their religion? What is their culture and practice? Or are they really from somewhere else confused as Mindanao? But for little less interest and empathy for those whose problems are not the insurgency, my curiosity of the Badjaos became just a passing query, or so I thought.

Unadulterated paradise

One perk in being assigned in Tawi Tawi is experiencing paradise unadulterated. Badjaos diving in the deep, clear waters of Tawi Tawi are part of this panorama. 

FLOATING SCHOOL. All photos by Lt Col Stephen Cabanlet

If in Manila, Badjaos are a street nuisance, in Tawi Tawi they are the baby’s breath that compliments the beauty of a bouquet of roses. They fit so well in their turf I can’t help but ask again, “Who are these people?”  They seem to have no roots, no connection to other Muslims of Tawi Tawi or other Filipinos. They seem to be “their own” people living in boats with no land to call their own, yet so at peace and in one with their natural habitat. 

Wikipedia could only give a myth as to where they really came from. These boat people themselves are clueless of their origin.  Interestingly, researchers say that the Badjaos who migrated to other parts of the country and the Badjaos who went to Malaysia and Brunei, all came from Tawi Tawi.

My first impression is that Badjaos are not victims of insurgency. I stand corrected – the migration of these peace loving boat people was due to the continuous violence in Muslim Mindanao. These insurgencies have reportedly “driven many Badjao to begging, or to emigrate,” according to published reports.

EATING TIME. Badjao children dine on food prepared by the 3rd Marine Battalion

Now under the care of the 3rd Marine Battalion (3MBn), Badjaos of Tawi Tawi are enrolled in the “Marine-wide” feeding program.

This feeding program deviates from the usual one-meal feeding program as it is a continuous 6-month program with the aim of improving the weight and overall health of every Badjao child. Alongside the feeding program, parents are taught basic care and hygiene. 

Implementing the feeding program among this group of people in their floating boat school is a new experience for me and the rest of the 3MBn. What makes it different from the feeding program we had in other areas is the fact that I get the chance to learn history first hand. 

HYGIENE. Cleaning up promotes better health

It is kind of interesting to know that Tawi Tawi Badjaos are not in the habit of eating breakfast because all of them feel nauseated when they do. So is the fact that not all of them are Muslim and some even confess to be atheists. 

Even more interesting is the fact that among them, the standard used to settle arguments on who ranks better is who owns a much bigger or newer material thing. And when you ask them about their origin, it is as if they are facing that question for the first time – the question of who they really are. –

Lt Col Stephen Cabanlet is a member of the Philippine Marine Corps. He is one of the founders of the Football for Peace Movement.

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