With a population of about two million, comprising of over 32 different ethnic groups speaking over 80 local dialects, Sabah offers a diverse and multicultural experience. The three main indigenous groups of Sabah in order of population size are the Kadazan-Dusun, Bajau and Murut.
More on the Bajau
Language family: Austronesian
Language branch: Malayo-Polynesian
The Bajau have been a nomadic, seafaring people for most of their history. Many Bajau still practice that same lifestyle to this very day, which explains why they are still commonly called ‘sea gypsies’. They chart particularly the waters of the Sulu Sea, off the south west coast of the Philippines and the various seas that surround the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. These are among the most dangerous waters in the world with sporadic policing at best and a very high incidence of open piracy.
Other Bajau began living entirely on land about 200 years ago. While the seafaring Bajau still make their living from fishing, those who have abandoned that lifestyle have become farmers and rear cattle and horses - earning them the local nickname, ‘cowboys of the east’. Indeed, their unique skills are well known in this part of the world and are demonstrated in Bajau ceremonial events. Still, other Bajau live a lifestyle between nomadic and sedentary, housed in villages on the water, not far from land.
The Bajau are a colourful, festive and musical people. They believe they descend from royalty and this is perhaps partly why they wear such richly colourful clothes, often made by hand from traditional fabrics. Brides and grooms wear even more colourful clothing at their weddings. The more highly-regarded a woman, the more brightly and colourfully she will be dressed. She will also receive many water buffaloes which, to the Bajau, is a special animal that usually forms part of any woman's dowry. Arranged marriages are common and marriage by kidnap or elopement is also an occasional occurrence.
Although they are the second largest indigenous community in Sabah, the precise origin of the Bajau is unknown. They may have come from Johore, in peninsular Malaysia, long before the two Borneo states became a part of the country. Wherever they came from, their migration has been attributed in part to their pursuit of trade, particularly in a sea cucumber species called the Trepang. It is considered a delicacy and is used in soups made as far away as China, where it is also used medicinally. Bajau divers can descend into the sea as deep as 30 meters (100 feet) in search of it.
Almost all Bajau today are Sunni Muslims. They believe that there are among their people direct descendants of Prophet Mohammed. Yet, many - predominantly the seafaring, nomadic Bajau - retain spiritually based religious practices that pre-date any ‘major’ religion. In their religion, designated spirit mediums communicate with the spirit world in ritual ceremonies of celebration, worship and exorcism - in which, for example, spirit boats are sailed into the open seas to cast the offending spirit away from their community. They also worship the God of the sea, Omboh Dilaut.
A large part of Bajau history and tradition is captured in their folklore. One ancient story tells of a very large man named Bajau. His people used to follow him to the river because whenever he went there the river would overflow due to his large body mass and they could then easily harvest the dead fish. Other tribes in the area soon learnt of his reputation and, being envious of the advantage he bestowed upon his people, plotted to kill him. But their efforts came to no avail and he survived the poisoned arrows fired at him. His epitaph today is a stone, which he himself carried to his own burial place - a stone that no other man could lift. To this day some Bajau - and other local indigenous peoples - still fear his stone and his reputation.
Folkloric stories like this are these days based on interpretation handed down throughout countless generations. Yet, however much the original story may have been distorted or exaggerated over time, it reflects a common theme in many people's folklore: that theirs is the dominant or superior people in a particular region.
The Bajau, like any distinct group, have lost some of their heritage, as some of their stories were never re-told to the next generation. The Bajau are also beginning to lose some of their identity as they integrate with their adopted, land-based communities. Even the most traditional, sea-faring Bajau are losing their boat-building craft as they replace their hand-made lipa-lipa boats with commercially built, mass-produced ones. On Sabah's south-eastern-most coast, these lipa-lipa boats are a feature of the annual Semporna festival, where the boats are colourfully decorated and raced against each other in a celebration of Bajau culture.
Despite these changes, the richness of the Bajau heritage is starting to gain recognition and regarded worthy of preservation. In addition to anthropological works, organisations like the Sabah Bajau Arts and Cultural Association and the Centre for Borneo Studies sponsor various events that spotlight Bajau life.
|Last Updated on Monday, 09 March 2009 11:46|