KISSAH AND DAWAT: Sama-Bajaw: The Transnational Phenomenon

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ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 6 Apr) – Thanks to globalization, the world had shrunk into a village; and thanks to technology, that village had shrunk to a palm-sized gadget making the exchange possible and information flow faster. This is true even among the contemporary Sama and Bajaw peoples who have found new impetus and awareness about themselves and their fellows across Southeast Asia. Prof. Muhammad Kurais II had captured in his book “History of Tawi-Tawi and Its People” [1] this sense of belongingness as “Sama-Sama”, “da munda’” or on the same boat and destination, and “da pehak” or from the same gonad, recognizing the Sama-Bajaw diversity but still belonging to the same identity.

Dunya Sama-Bajaw

The dunya (world) of the Sama-Bajaw was not an exclusive and centralized political enclave, it was largely social, cultural and spiritual ecosphere – inclusive, interactive, pragmatic and highly decentralized to the community level. Kazufumi Nagatsu (2017) uses the word “ecosphere” in describing this Sama-Bajaw world. Because of these realities, the Sama-Bajaw was able to live in relative peace and in harmony with the maritime world with different peoples and cultures, even with those with hegemonic agenda; and with the marine world which is the ecology of its existence.

The Sama-Bajaw is as organic with the sea, as with the ability to evolve, adapt and change with the surroundings. There are physical markers to describe how far and dispersed they are to date showing us the width of the physical space they consider as their world.

Based from what I have gathered to date, we can put the Northern marker of the Sama-Bajaw to two physical spaces in the Philippines. The first one is “Tubbataha” in the northern region of the vast Sulu Sea. The Sama-Bajaw fishers and gatherers call this “Tabba Taha”, long or wide shallow water. Tabba Taha is typical fishing ground. The second Northern marker is the Abaknon people of Capul Island, a municipality in Northern Samar. Now largely Catholic, their indigenous language is a dialect of Sinama, the language of the Sama-Bajaw peoples.

The Eastern marker of the Dunya Sama-Bajaw brings us to the Sissano, in Aitape District, Sandaun Province, Papua New Guinea. The Sissano language is considered to be a Sinama subgroup based on the sample analysis of their language found in this website – http://www.language-museum.com/encyclopedia/s/sissano.php

The Southern marker of the Sama-Bajaw world brings us to the northern region of the world’s smallest continent. In his paper “Maritime Diaspora and Creolization: Genealogy of the Sama-Bajau in Insular Southeast Asia” (2017)[3], Kazufumi Nagatsu identified the presence of Sulawesi Bajau in the northern region of Australia. In a footnote, Nagatsu stated, “In 1974, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was concluded between Australia and Indonesia. It allowed traditional Indonesian fishermen to fish by ‘traditional’ methods within a 12-nautical mile radius of certain reefs including Ashmore reef in the Australian waters in the Timor Sea (Stacey 2007: 1-2). The Bajau have frequently fished in and around the fishing ground defined by the MOU.”

To the east of Madura Island is the Kangean Archipelago, said to have extensive coral reefs rich in marine resources, such as trepang, turtles, and a range of edible fish. In this archipelago can be found Sapeken Island. The original inhabitants are Bajaus.

This is a simple sketch of the extent of the Dunya Sama-Bajaw or ecosphere. One trigger for this expanse maybe link with what Jun Akamine (2017) describes in his paper “The Role of Sama/Bajaus in Sea Cucumber Trades in the Sulu Sultanate Economy: Towards a Reconstruction of Dynamic Maritime History in Southeast Asia” as the lucrative trade in specialty maritime products (SMPs) that only the Sama-Bajaw fishers, divers and gatherers can provide.

Nation-States and New Fellowship

The historical consciousness of shared identity and belongingness gradually waned with the regimes of colonial powers in insular Southeast Asia and the emergent of nation-state construct imposed by the West. “All in all, there were seven colonial powers in Southeast Asia: Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, France, the United States, and Japan. From the 1500s to the mid-1940s, colonialism was imposed over Southeast Asia” [2]. Each colonial power was driven by her own political and economic motives.

By the 20th century, the division of the Sama-Bajaw peoples became what it is today demarcated and influenced by national lines, each influenced by distant power centers. The Bajau of Indonesia looked up to Jakarta and became part of the national awakening towards the Indonesian identity and consciousness. The Bajau of North Borneo became part of the Federation of Malaysia, embracing and becoming part of the national identity as Malaysian. The Sama of the Sulu Archipelago became part of the Philippine Republic. In every nation-state construct, whether it is Indonesia, Malaysia or the Philippines, the colonial view dominated the construction while leaving the Sama-Bajaw peoples to grapple with new political reality wherever borders they may be in. What used to be the hub of the maritime trade became backwaters, forgotten and feared.

While still etched in the stories of the elders the unity and diversity of old, it is to social media that these stories find impetus, and excitement among young Sama-Bajaw across the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. They are now using social media, like Facebook, to befriend fellows across the borders, to organize social and political groups and to exchange personal and communal experiences and views; and news from each other borders are shared across creating that sense of camaraderie, a contemporary Sama-Bajaw consciousness and sense of identity and belongingness that they are not anymore a minority, but diverse maritime peoples transcending the nation-state borders, united by common Sama-Bajaw identity and heritage.

[1] Kurais, Muhammad. 1979. History of Tawi-Tawi and Its People. MSU-SCTO. Accessed April 02, 2018 here – https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000309227. Also here – http://koha.nlp.gov.ph/cgi-bin/koha/opac-detail.pl?bib=153043

[2] Ty, Rey. “Colonialism and Nationalism in Southeast Asia”, Accessed April 02, 2018 here – http://www.seasite.niu.edu/crossroads/ty/colonialism_%20in_se%20asia.htm

[3] Nagatsu, Kazufumi.(2017). “Maritime Diaspora and Creolization : Genealogy of the Sama-Bajau in Insular Southeast Asia” in the Senri Ethnological Studies, Volume 95. Accessed April 02, 2018 here – https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:68iPKMlbpnUJ:https://minpaku.repo.nii.ac.jp/index.php%3Faction%3Dpages_view_main%26active_action%3Drepository_action_common_download%26item_id%3D7449%26item_no%3D1%26attribute_id%3D22%26file_no%3D1%26page_id%3D13%26block_id%3D21+&cd=12&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=ph

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry – born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and a member of an insider-mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue.)

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