Sunday, October 27, 2013

Malaysia’s Sea Gypsies- The Bajau Tribe

Malaysia is home to a vibrant multi-ethnic population composed of Muslims, Chinese, Indians and various indigenous peoples. The Bajau Laut, are one such group, believed to the second largest indigenous populace resident in Sabah.
The Bajau have been living for years in an oceanic area, known popularly as ‘the Coral Triangle’ situated between the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. This area extends over 1.6 billion acres and hosts three thousand species of fish and much of world’s coral species. The Bajau, who are known as the last true marine nomads on earth, are one of the prominent communities’ resident in this area and they are renowned for their vital connection to the sea and its bounty.

The Bajau people are essentially fisher folk who ply their craft from aboard long boats called ‘Lepa-Lepa’. They are famed for their free-diving skills and are known to have the capability to plunge to depths of 30 meters or more by deliberately rupturing their eardrums at an early age. The Bajau people have been free-diving in this manner for centuries, though they also use traditional methods of fishing which involve the use of hand-held spears, nets and lines.
The Bajau used to initially reside on their boats, and leave them only to go to the market to sell their daily catch in exchange for rice, fruits and vegetables. In recent years, however the Bajau have migrated to live in water villages built on stilts near the sea. These villages are devoid of essential services like gas, electricity and water but yet the Bajau continue to live here using the sea for all needs. The Malaysian government is currently in the process of resettling the Bajau in specially constructed dwellings in an effort to administer them better.

Although Islam (Malaysia and Indonesia) and Christianity (Philippines) are the dominant religions of the region inhabited by the Bajau people, they tend to practice their own religion which is a combination of traditional animism and a syncretic religion in which the sea is regarded as ‘Home’.
The Bajau are easily visible in various destinations around Sabah like the city of Kota Kinabalu, the island of Semporna, the island of Sipadan and Mataking Island.


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