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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 103, April 2007






Fr. Dennis G. TAMAYO, CMF

Project-In-Charge Claret Samal Foundation, Inc.




There are considerable number of groups of Indigenous People in the Philippines who are nomads by nature - the Mangyan of Mindoro, the Aetas of Zambalez, the Manobos of Cotabato, the Mandaya of Davao to mention a few of these tribal groups - but among them there is the most marginalized group - the Samal Bajaus of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Zamboanga. The Bajaus are the poorest among the poor. There can never be poor as the Samal Bajaus are. Thus, when the first gathering was made to address the needs and concerns of the nomadic tribes in the Philippines it is the Bajaus who became the focus. 

The Bajaus

The name of these marginalized indigenous people is spelled in various ways: “Badjao,” “Badyaw,” or “Bajau.” Apparently, “Bajau” has the closest phonemic affinity to the language group in the area where this people belong (Malayo-Polynesian languages). They are also sometimes called by about a dozen other names like: “Sama Dilaut,” “Laut,” or “Orang Laut” (at the Malaysian side of the border). 

Sometimes called the “sea gypsies” these “once-boat-dwelling people” are traditionally found mainly in the southwestern Philippines (Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi areas), northwestern Malaysia and the nor them parts of Indonesia down to Johore where certain legend traces their origin. They belong to a bigger grouping called the Samals of which the Bajaus are considered to be of the lowest class. They are also referred to as a “vanishing tribe,” being driven to near extinction due to exploitation by the neighbouring dominant tribes, as well as of disease, starvation, intermarriages with dominant tribe and apparent inability to cope with the social changes, which are exacerbated by a non-culturally sensitive way of developing them. At present, unofficial estimates place their number to about a few thousands. There is no exact counting of Bajaus in the Philippines, a manifestation of how they are being left out.

Most Bajaus are fishermen (traditionally, all of them were!) and they live on the bounties of the sea or on what is left of it. The women go out to gather clams and seaweeds by the coastal areas. Having lost their traditional fishing grounds (even gears, lives and all!) to pirates and poachers, they are left with meager means of livelihood. Extreme poverty has driven many of them to work as porters at the wharf and many have taken resort to begging. Many Bajaus now subsist on a once-a-day meal of ground cassava and fish. Bad weather and military operations reduce this diet to practically nothing for days on ends!

Basically, the Bajaus are spirit believers. They believe that the evil spirit, commonly known to them as saitan, is the one bringing them the misery that they experience. Likewise, they also believe in the village spirit mediums (omboh) that perform curative rite called as pag-omboh. These beliefs in supernatural beings and their ancestral spirits have contributed to their silent and peaceful society and to their good social behavior as claimed by some writers. Bajaus are not Muslims although they practice what anthropologists call “folk Islam” as they are influenced by their Muslim neighbours.

The Bajaus are peace-loving people, oftentimes to a fault. They would endure all forms of hardship, inconvenience and lost opportunities if only to avoid getting into trouble, especially with people not of their own tribe. Hence, they prefer to live in peace by themselves at the coastal fringes of population centers, mangrove areas, coves and islets. With the huge logs which they used to carve into houseboats having gone very scarce (and expensive), their mobile dwellings have evolved into shanties on stilts - literally a ramshackle ensemble of poles, palm fronds, and if the family is better off, some pieces of miss-cut planks.

Wherever they live, they are considered citizens of the lowest class: ignorant, dirty, stench-smelling and deprived. Many people have very  low regard for them that practically anybody could pick on any Bajau and go unchallenged. Their situation is a picture of complete neglect that has driven whole families to flock to the big cities of Metro Manila, Cebu and Davao to beg in the streets. The Bajaus are at the receiving end of all the consequences of the on-going war and violence beyond reach of government services.

In the entire Philippines, there are no other people who are as collectively and individually poor as the Bajaus - without exception. Certainly none other could be poorer. 

The First Gathering for Nomads

With the visit of Fr. Renato Rosso last April 2004 in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi areas in the southern most part of the Philippines, the pastoral care for nomads in the Philippines was conceived having the Bajaus as its focus. The first Gathering of People working with the Nomads or Samal Bajaus in the Philippines was conducted on April 8, 2005 in Grand Astoria, Mayor Jaldon Street, Zamboanga City, Philippines. It was attended by 20 people coming from eight main areas where Bajaus are located: Isabela City and Maluso in Basilan, Siasi and Jolo in Sulu, Bongao in Tawi-Tawi, Pagadian City, General Santos City and Zamboanga City. The first gathering was an orientation of those who are working with the Bajaus that there is a specific pastoral care given to nomads like them as initiated by the Church. There was a sharing of experience journeying with these Samal Bajau people, particularly giving stress on their situation and the issues and concerns they have as a people. The poverty, lack of education, the marginalized position of the Samal Bajaus in the society became evident and how they are being used by syndicates to raise money by begging in the streets of big cities in the Philippines like Manila, Cebu and Davao.

After a deep sharing of experiences with the Bajaus and seeing the marginalization of the Bajaus, the participants decided to create a coordinating body that would take charge of the meeting of people who are working with the nomads in the Philippines. The following were elected:

President :   Most Rev. Angelito R Lampon, OMI, DD

                Bishop, Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo

Vice-Pres. :  Fr. Angel Calvo, CMF

                Prefect of Apostolate

                    Claretian Missionaries, Zamboanga City

Secretary :   Fr. Dennis G. Tamayo, CMF


                   Claret Samal Foundation

                Townsite, Maluso, Basilan Province

Treasurer :    Sr. Norma N. Capampangan, FMM

                    Bajau Ministry

                Notre Dame of Siasi

                    Siasi, Sulu


1) Mr. Ronald Y. Salipio - General Santos City

2) Fr. Felipe N. Alvarez - Pagadian City

3) Mrs. Virginia E. Montebon - Isabela City, Basilan

4) Fr. Romeo P. Saniel, OMI - Jolo, Sulu

5) Mrs. Erlinda Chio - Bongao, Tawi-Tawi

It was decided that the president will be a bishop to properly represent the cause of nomads like the Bajaus to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). There were three priorities but Bishop Lampon was the first priority and had officially accepted the nomination. This first meeting had also decided to officially call the gathering as National Assembly for the Pastoral care of Samal Bajaus and Nomads in the Philippines. 

The Second Assembly for Nomads

The Second National Assembly for the Pastoral Care of Samal Bajaus and Nomads in the Philippines was held last April 27-29, 2006 at PIME-Euntes, Sinunuc, Zamboanga City, Philippines. It was attended by 30 people coming from Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga City, Davao City, and MetroManila: Pasig City and Makati City. This time, concerned civil society organizations (Claret Samal Foundation, Inc., Community Extension Senvices of Notre Dame of Jolo, Asia Foundation, Catholic Relief Services, Asia Foundation, Peace Advocates Zamboanga, and Lumah Ma Di laut CTR For Living Tradition); government line agencies (National Commission on Indigenous People Region IX and ARMM); private institutions (Notre Dame of Mapun, Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo) and Bajau organizations (Maluso Bajau People's Organization, National Sama Badjao Movement, Sama Bajau Tribal Group) had come over to participate in this assembly. It was an opportunity to create a network of concerned agencies for the plight of the Bajaus.

The assembly was started with getting to know the different participating agencies and their work with the Bajaus. It was followed by the sharing of their different programs and activities for the betterment of the Bajaus. A common effort was established to document the history, culture, spirituality and traditions of the Bajaus as well as to have a comprehensive program for the welfare of Samal Bajaus; that is, considering the needed education of the Bajaus to liberate themselves from their poverty, their health, housing, livelihood and the preservation of their culture. These plans will be tackled slowly by every organization and basic data will be gathered to be brought in the next assembly. A research team is being created to prepare a project proposal for the said documentation and before the third assembly a Comprehensive Problem Analysis and Programming is being suggested to have a better preparation and a more focused theme for the coming assembly. The same set of officers were identified except for the treasurer who was replaced by Sr. Julie Calumpang, FMM.

This is now the process that is happening with our Bajau brethren as we are journeying with them. The Coordinating Body is being represented by Bishop Lampon in the CBCP. It is our fervent hope that their needs and problems be properly addressed tapping appropriate agencies and organizations with the help of concerned Christians and individuals.        

In this first two assemblies for the Pastoral care of Nomads in the Philippines, Claret Samal Foundation, Inc. (CSFI) became the host organization. CSFI is a Claretian Missionary endeavour that addresses the plight of the poor Bajaus. CSFI started with trying to live, understand, and share with the culture of this people. It has five program components: 1) organizing, 2) education, 3) health, 4) livelihood and 5) Culture. It aims to help and guide the Samal-Bajaus foster their identity and live a just harmonious community where there is quality of life rooted on their own indigenous culture.