CAGAYAN DE ORO (MindaNews / 12 September) — The local government here sent back 129 Badjaos back to their places of origin – in the cities of Iligan and Zamboanga and the provinces of Basilan and Sulu — on Friday night, a day after their village in Barangay Puntod ended a 14-day mandatory quarantine
A 21-year-old female Badjao from Iligan City who was staying as a transient in the village had earlier tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the City Health Office here to place the village of 30 Badjao families (149 individuals) under a 14-day lockdown that ended Thursday.
The woman arrived in Cagayan de Oro a few days before the August 28 Feast of the city’s patron saint, St. Augustine. Cagayan de Oro Mayor Oscar Moreno had earlier she was part of a bigger Badjao group that traditionally comes to Cagayan de Oro during the fiesta to beg on the streets.
City Epidemiologist Dr. Joselito Retuya said that during their contact-tracing, they found out that she arrived from Iligan City the weekend prior to the fiesta and was rushed to the Northern Mindanao Medical Center on August 25 after she complained of vomiting and severe dehydration.
Teodoro Sabuga-a Jr., chief of the City Social Welfare Development Office told MindaNews it is not the fear that the Badjaos or Bajaus, also known as “sea nomads,” will become a major virus spreader that drove the city government to send them back to their places of origin.
He said most of the Badjaos arrived in Cagayan de Oro before the city fiesta last August 28.
Annually, Sabuga-a said, Badjaos come during the fiesta to beg for money on the city’s main streets where the activities are. He said the Badjaos would earn 150 to 200 pesos a day from begging.
This year’s fiesta activities, however, were limited to virtual events due to the pandemic.
Sabugaa said the Badjaos “usually come and go during the fiesta but this time they were caught up by the pandemic.”
The city’s move to send back the Badjaos to their provinces was criticized by many, particularly as the City Council of Cagayan de Oro had just passed on August 10 an anti-discrimination ordinance penalizing any form of discrimination against any group, COVID-19 patients and frontliners.
Asked to comment on the transport of the Badjaos to their places of origin, Mayor Moreno said “mendicancy should not be a way of life.”
Transported by bus
Sabuga-a said social workers who interviewed the Badjaos learned that 13 families or 62 individuals came from Basilan;11families or 46 individuals from Sulu; and two families or 10 individuals came from Zamboanga.
He said four families or 11 individuals were to be dropped off in Iligan City, including the 21-year old who had earlier tested positive for COVID-19 but had been treated and discharged from the hospital.
Sabugaa said they had coordinated with the city government of Iligan to receive the 11.
He said about 20 Badjaos, who have “successfully integrated to the mainstream society” have agreed to remain in their village in Barangay Puntod.
Three buses from the Rural Transit Company fetched the 129 Badjaos in Barangay Puntod amid a downpour at 10 p.m. Friday.
The Badjaos boarded the buses with all their possessions packed mostly in sacks.
A few catcalls and jeers were heard as the Badjaos boarded the buses that would take them to Iligan and Zamboanga City, in transit at the port for those bound for Basilan and Sulu.
Sabuga-a said they coordinated with the local governments of Zamboanga City and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Not the first time
The Badjaos here belong to Sama-Bajau, an Austronesian sea-dwelling ethnic group, that settled across Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The Badjaos in the Philippines suffer from discrimination as there is lack of understanding about their way of life and language, in the areas where they have settled in.
The City Health Office’s decision to put the Badjao community under a 14-day quarantine two weeks ago was a challenge for frontline medical workers and the local government here but Mayor Moreno then said that it should be explained to the community that “quarantine is for their own protection.”
Moreno said Badjaos are highly mobile and speak their own language, as he acknowledged the language barrier between them and barangay health workers.
“The Badjaos love their freedom and being quarantined might not suit their lifestyle,” he said.
It is not the first time the local government of Cagayan de Oro sent back Badjaos to their home provinces.
During the term of the late Mayor Pablo Magtajas in the 1990s, the LGU also loaded the Badjao community in Barangay Puntod to Zamboanga.
However, the Badjaos trickled back to Cagayan de Oro in pairs or small groups riding buses and trucks.
Sabuga-a said the City Government tried to integrate the Badjaos to the mainstream of the City by offering free housing and work.
“They refused our offer because the location of the houses is far from the sea,” he said,
Sabuga-a said when they found a suitable site in Barangay Bonbon, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources disapproved the plan because the site is a “storm-surge area.” (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)