Very few people outside of the Badjao community speak their tribal language. But somehow, you just know when someone is screaming, “Shark! Shark!” I scrambled up the boats armor, nearly tipping it over, making me feel like a ten-ton elephant out of water. Jaji, the boat owner, and head of the family calmly stowed his spear gun, as he eased himself onto the deck. The entire family had a good laugh at the guy from Brooklyn, who had never swum with sharks before. Jaji later said that he estimated the shark to be two meters long. “We will fish somewhere else,” he said, and set the boat in motion.

Badjao PeopleThe Badjao settlement in Puerto Princesa, is a ramshackle village of wooden huts, built on stilts, over the water. The streets are bridges, made of wooden planks with uncertain footing. In places the boards are rotted through. In others, they are completely missing. The most misleading are the ones where, if you step on the middle you are fine, but if you step on the ends, you will go for a swim. Under no circumstances would you want to fall into the murky waters below. The tide pool under the village serves as a source of fish, a toilet, a washroom, shower, and a recreational swimming pool for children. At low-tide, the sand is a reeking thick black sludge, littered with plastic snack wrappers and pop bottles.

Traditionally the Badjao were a nomadic seafaring people, originating from the Samal Tribe, on the island of Mindenao, in the Philippines. They spend most or even all of their time on their boats, thus they are often referred to as Sea Gypsies. Sea Gypsy, however, is a very lose description, given to many unrelated ethnic groups. The Badjao are, for example, not related to the Mogen People, the Sea Gypsies of Surin Island, Thailand.

Down a particularly precarious alley in the maze of bamboo houses, we made a stop at the Badjao Daycare Center, where a dedicated teacher, named Nasuraya, teaches 45 wonderful Badjao children. The children were all bright-eyed and excited to see strangers in their classroom. Nasuraya encouraged them to greet us in Philippine language, which, according to Marifi, my guide and translator, they all spoke perfectly.

Nauraya explained that many Badjao children missed school during periods when their parents put out to sea. “Sometimes they just move away,” she said. “They are nomadic. This is normal for them.” Nauraya was, herself Badjao, but she was a born-again Christian, who had graduated university in Mindenao. She came to live in the settlement seven years earlier and was clearly dedicated to helping the Badjao children learn as much as they could during the periods they were in school. “I only speak Philippine language to them,” she stressed. “And I am strict. When I tell them to write, they know they need to write.”

According to Nauraya, the children faced a number of health problems. “Diarrhea is probably the most common illness. It comes from the dirty water.” The other major problem was dietary. “They don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables.”

From my own observation, they seemed to exist on a diet of only fish and rice.

The Badjao children appeared to be smaller than Philippine children. Many people in the community had an unhealthy look. Bad skin and bad teeth seemed to be common in the community.

The Badjao are nominally Muslim, the majority religion in Mindenao. In talking to them, however, it was clear that they had little or no knowledge of the religion. When I asked if they were Sunni and Shiite, I was met with blank stares. Nauraya did confirm that the Badjao refrained from eating pork, and that boys were circumcised at about the age of thirteen. “It depends on the family, when it is done. But they don’t have a big festival where the boys are circumcised all at once. It is done individually.”

“Some Badjao families have 10-12 children,” said Nauraya.

The families earn their living, almost exclusively, from fishing, diving for pearls, and harvesting sea products.

“The children can dive very well,” Nauraya told me. “When tourist boats come, they throw coins in the water and the children dive for them.”

Albatya, the daughter of the former tribal chieftain, took over as head of the community when her father died, several years earlier. Vague about the year, she explained, “We came here during the Marcos regime, to work as pearl divers for a rich family. But we don’t work for them anymore. “

According to Albataya, the community do not observe the Saturday rest. “After we return from the sea, we usually rest two or three days. But it has nothing to do with the religion.” For the most part, neither men nor women kept their heads covered. They also didn’t pray five times per day. “Most pray once a day and twice on Friday, when we go to the mosque. But now, a lot of the young ones don’t even go on Fridays.” For those who attended mosque, men and women prayed in separate sections of the room, with a curtain separating them. The mosque was simply one more bamboo house on stilts, with a loud speaker to call people to prayer.

The government has announced its intention to move the community to a more hygienic location. Albataya said, “We love Palawan. We don’t mind being relocated, but please tell them we need to live near the sea.” She went on to explain, “We don’t know how to live on land. We don’t know how to farm, and we don’t know the culture.”

Albataya told us that she, like much of the community, couldn’t read or write. When asked how she read the Koran she said, “We don’t have one.”  When asked if they observed Ramadan, she answered, “We live different than other Muslims. Our culture is different. We don’t have much contact with other Muslims. We even have our own mosque. The only time we have contact with others is when they invite us to special programs, but that doesn’t happen too often because they know we are different. A lot of families just worship in their home, with their elders running the worship service.”

At the entrance to the Badjao community I met a young man named Hanza, the son of the Imam. He was considered a messenger of god, teaching the Badjao People. According to Hanza, more than 95% of Muslims in the Philippines were Sunni. “The Badjao don’t know the basic pillars of Islam,” he said. “They don’t know about Mecca or making the Hajj. And of course, they would never be able to because of financial constraints.” At a nearby madrassa 85 students, both boys and girls, were studying. Not one of them was Badjao. “We have some special programs, from time to time, when the madrassa students come over to teach the Badjao.” Hanza lamented on how difficult the Arabic language was to learn. “The Department of Education has a program to add basic Arabic studies to the school curriculum, so the Muslim children will be able to learn faster. But it is very basic. Takes years to be able to speak.”

Hanza confirmed that they were also teaching Muslim martial arts such as Silat and Kuntaw. When I asked if I could participate, he became extremely suspicious. “Why do you want to know about that? Are you from the Army?”