The Sea Gypsies of Sabah

Guest post by John Downing. Travelled to Sabah in June 2017.

Stilted houses at Sabah, Malaysia

Known locally as Bajau ( a group of small tribes or ethnicities found in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines ), these people make up 13% of Sabah’s population. They have wandered the region for centuries collecting sea urchins, stingrays and numerous other species, some with hook and line, others free diving for up to 3 minutes with home made spear guns. Due to commercial over fishing, this way of life is seriously threatened and many have come ashore.

Due to commercial over fishing, this way of life is seriously threatened and many have come ashore.

Stilted houses at Sabah, Malaysia

Originally, most lived on humble, crowded, houseboats only visiting land for water, to sell fish or bury their dead. Too long on land felt unnatural and they felt “land sick.” Those now ashore build their houses on stilts to accommodate the tides and some have small shops selling snacks, harvested sea shells or shark products. Most are stateless but some with documents work for local dive resorts.

Most are stateless but some with documents work for local dive resorts.

Woman at Sabah, Malayisa

Traditionally, the Bajau used banana leaves or coconut shells for wrapping and disposed of them into the sea. Now plastic is available to them, they still just throw waste into the sea or onto the beach when finished with it. Because many are stateless there is no local rubbish collection available to them.

Because many are stateless there is no local rubbish collection available to them.

Some resorts are stepping into the breach by organising rubbish collection points, schooling, basic medical help, and a prize for the child who collects the most rubbish each week.

The Bajau live an incredibly difficult existence surviving on whatever they can find in the sea and a starchy root called “ubi.” Whilst the children don’t generally go hungry, their unbalanced diet can lead to extended bellies and malnutrition.

Children at Sabah, Malaysia

They are a friendly lot and anyone visiting Sabah’s east coast is assured a memorable experience, both above and below the water.

Sunset in Sabah, Malaysia

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