The Badjaos, known as Sea Gypsies, are a tribe originating from the Sulu Archipelago in Mindanao, in the south of the Philippines. They are nomadic, seafaring people, living off the sea by subsistence fishing and trading. The Badjaos were forced to move to the sea because of the continuous pressure from other southern tribes who looked down on them. They travelled the shores of Southeast Asia for centuries using lepa, handmade boats which many lived in, and built houses on stilts, on the sea shore, near fertile fishing grounds. Eventually the sea moulded their attitude and appearance: the rough environment and way of living shaped their typical physical features, the bronze coloured hair and dark brown skin distinguish them from other tribes. Most of the Badjaos don’t speak Tagalog, the Filipino national language, but use their own dialect. Because of their nomadic existence, most of the older Badjaos are illiterate. Their children are the first generation who attend school, a fact which will surely bring change to this community.
These wanderers of the Southern seas, born on the water, are famous for their underwater spearfishing skills as well the ability to hold their breath underwater for up to five minutes. Their diving and fishing techniques are unique. Their hearts slow to 30 beats per minute while they “walk” on the bottom of the sea, 20 meters below the surface.
In January 2018, together with some of ASA Philippines Foundation staff, the largest microfinance institution in the country, I was very fortunate to visit the small Badjao community who has settled in Barangay Totolan Dauis on Bohol Island. I went there not to see the skilled fishermen but to meet with their wives, some of whom are the micro-entrepreneurs of ASA. These brave “nanays” (mothers) run small businesses to support their often large families. They sell the fish and the pearls their husbands bring back. These proud women wear very distinctive skirts, with stunning colourful patterns. These bright colours are also found on the wooden walls of their houses. Despite discrimination, poverty and hardship, they exude joy, telling us they are happy in their lively close-knit community.