The Multi-religious Sama Dilaut

The Sama Dilaut, also known generically in Southeast Asia as Bajau or Bajo, have been traditionally plying the Sulu-Sulawesi-Bornean waters. Where the Bajos of Sulawesi and Borneo are noted to have been fully integrated into Islamic communities and most having managed to move upstairs socially, now lead affluent lives, those in the Philippine seas remain to be the most marginalized and the least Islamized of the 13 ethnolinguistic groupings collectively called the Bangsamoro people, and remaining the least profited from agricultural and industrial economy because of their sea habitat and nomadic existence. In terms of religion, the Sama Dilaut is probably an epitome of multi-religious followership, albeit in a more ‘pristine’ sense, as they practice a curious admix of ‘religions’ for the same pragmatic reason as the religious minorities elsewhere in Southeast Asia, i.e. in Indonesia, have re-coursed to cultural adaptation and economic survival.

The Sama Dilaut are so ethnically diverse and their cultural and religious practices could greatly vary from one geographic site to another. In recent times of conflict, an increasing number of Sama Dilaut have been forced to abandon their traditional lifestyle to adventure into dry land where, living in ‘lahat hangkut’ (i.e. diaspora community) and in ‘lahat bisaya’ (i.e. Christian land), the Sama Dilaut have been mostly subsisting on begging. Lately, many have converted to the ‘mag-sandes’ (i.e. ‘Sunday’s) who are protestant evangelical sects of either the Baptist, Alliance or born-again Christians such as the JIL (Jesus is Lord) as these Christian denominations have been actively prosyletizing among Mindanao-Sulu indigenous populations and offer handsome incentives such as free housing, cash capital for modest livelihood, schooling for their children or sometimes even a boat to allow them to pursue their old trade. On return to their homewaters in Sulu or Basilan, however, the Sama Dilaut would rebuild their make-shift houses on stilts (called Lumah Dilaut), renew their sense of community with the surrounding mangroves and coral reefs and follow the religion of their nearest kin-group, the Sama (i.e. my ethnic family), whom they share a common language and, like the sedentary Sama, they call upon ‘Omboh Tuhan’ (Great Ancestor the Lord) as Allah. Although most of them do not observe all the five prayers (i.e. they pray only once during the Friday, jamaat), they have their own way of observing the fast in Ramadhan (i.e. which is observing the first 3-5 days of Ramadhan in detachment from the world, with no food, no water, no sex, no conversation and not even moving to defecate or  staying as immobile as possible, then they spend the rest of Ramadhan normally until the last 3-5 days when they again performed the ‘fast’ as described above) and never miss to celebrate auspicious occasions as Mauludun nabi , Nisfu sha’ban and the feasts of Eid where the grand Omboh rituals are usually conducted. In their thanksgiving, birthing, marriage and mourning rituals Sama Dilaut would chant ‘Ella Allah! Tuhan de kawuh kawuh’, i.e. ‘Allah, the only One Great God”. After which they would follow up with the main and official ceremony of ‘pag-omboh’, an intricate rice (and fresh fruit harvest) offertory rites to ancestors.

In one of my field-visits in a migrant land[i], I wondered aloud to Omboh Kuraysiya, an old crone and shaman (i.e. she was also the tribal chieftain called omboh Panglima) if the Sama Dilaut believed in Tuhan Isa (Lord Jesus), and she said ‘yes’. Do they also believe in Tuhan Allah (Lord God)? Yes, she confirmed. ‘And so how do you pray?’ I asked. We ‘ask for blessings and mercy’ from our Omboh (i.e. ancestral spirits) was her answer. If they also pray to Tuhan Isa and Tuhan Allah, she replied also affirmatively. How? ‘A na, ameyah-meyah na sadja koh kita ndeh!’ [we will just have to mimic how they do it, child!].

‘How could that be possible, you are subscribing to three agama at the same time?’, I persisted.  To which her octogenarian voice excited and quivered that they did not have agama. But how come?

‘You do not know anything, child!’, she then gently scolded me. ’Tuhan Isa itu maka Tuhan Allah itu, na, magka-partida ru ko heh! [Lord Jesus and Lord Allah belong to the same ‘partida’], she patiently explained.

Maka sigaam heh, da munda ru, ondeh, ya sa munda sigaam heh parinta!’ [And they belong to the same moorage with the head of the moorage as the government].

Na kitabi se heh pehak Sama, ya na mag-omboh kita se heh, ito ya bineyanan ta be patundanan ta be heh!’ [And as for us who belong to the Sama, our ancestors is the head of our tundan].

To the uninitiated, this may sound complicated and confusing. And to understand this richly metaphorical frame, a little background of the Sama Dilaut economic life is necessary. The Sama Dilaut main economic life is the sea and fishing. They used to practice traditional way of fishing called mag-ambit (‘to hold on to each other’) where a number of fishing boats (usually unmotorized dug-outs with outriggers) organized into a group called da-munda (i.e. following one ‘lead’) where one main boat is assigned as the ‘munda’ or the ‘leader’ of the contingent; and the rest of the individual boats are called ‘tundan’ (lit. ‘those who are being towed’) or followers. The outing usually lasts from 3-7 days, at the end of which the participants in the pag-ambit would equally share in the collective catch of the group. This basic economic metaphor is important frame to enable us to enter the world of the Sama Dilaut especially their sense of community organization, leadership and governance. For the Sama Dilaut then,  what we call ‘agama’ or ‘religion’ is like a fishing trip where individual boats follow a munda (i.e. common lead) with the rest affiliated as the tundan (i.e. those who are towed), as followers. In traditional religion, the munda used to be the omboh or the revered ancestral spirits.

In more recent times, especially in their life in migration, the traditional fishing practice of pag-ambit has completely disappeared and has been replaced by the system of ‘partida’, a capitalist-based fishing economy that operates like a cooperative where a big fishing boat owned and managed by fishing capitalist hire dockhands, stevedores and crew. The capitalist is usually a rich businessman belonging to other ethnic grouping as a Tausug or Yakan (i.e. Muslim ethnic groups in Sulu and Basilan) or an Ilonggo (i.e. a Christian majority ethnic). The partida usually recruits individual Sama Dilaut fishers to form part of its ‘hired labor’ as divers and fishers since part of the partida prospects would be exotic aquarium fishes, sharks and deep sea fish species that need to be ‘pinatuli’ or ‘put to sleep’, through cyanide spraying or use of similar poison, thus immobile, are now readied for harvesting. The partida need the Sama Dilaut expertise as divers to do the spraying as the latter’s familiarity of the underwater environment enable them to spot the most inconspicuous fish and they could also ‘speak’ to the sharks to ask for its fins. Sama Dilaut are famed for their ability to swim deep even without proper diving gears and air-tanks. Having to ride along in their small unmotorized boats, the Sama Dilaut are towed by the big boat into the open seas, in the same manner as they used to be ‘tinundan’ in pag-ambit, except that the entire catch of the partida goes to the capitalist and in return for their services individual fishermen are paid wages usually ranging from 100-150 pesos per day (i.e. 20,000 rupiah). It is usually the practice that a Sama Dilaut fisherman would have already withdrawn in advance his entire wage for the season, say, of seven days, as he needs to leave the balanja (i.e. budget/subsistence) for his family before he ventures off for the sea. In short, the individual partida member does not actually have anything to collect from their master at the end of the fishing trip, instead it is more likely that he would have to ask for a new credit to bring something to the family on his return, in this way, the Sama Dilaut remains in perpetual bondage to the capitalist.

Going back to the metaphor of religion and the partida, the Sama Dilaut looks at the omboh or ancestral worship as benevolent one in the frame of traditional fishing ways where the common catch of the fishers who followed the pag-ambit used to be equally divided among the participants. To this ‘religion’, the kapehakan (i.e.clan) truly belongs and their propitiations and supplications are directly answered with blessings and mercy. In the present situation of living in diaspora, migrant Sama Dilaut have to affiliate with a Partida to survive. It is in this context that they view the new religions in migrant lands, either of the Christians or of non-Sama Muslims, who like crewmen in a partida, are their business partners, whom the Sama Dilaut temporarily affiliate with and must assist in ‘their prayers’ so that the Sama would be paid off with  economic benefits (i.e. house, boat, livelihood, education). These religions are not only led by those who are ‘not one of their [sama dilaut] own’ but on whose employment they are increasingly dependent upon, yet at the end of the day, their services could be dismissed and they are freed from allegiance, they could return back to their families and stilt-houses where the Omboh dwell. Interestingly, the great capitalist and leader of this partida is a detached entity called a ‘governme nt’. [18 March 2010] ###

[i] Fieldwork done in from April to August in 2003 in Tulay Tabako, Cagayan de Oro City, Northern Mindanao by HAGS, Inc. A field report is published in the Mindanao Journal of MSU-IIT in 2004.


About Mucha Q. Arquiza
Supports the preservation and promotion of indigenous knowledge systems

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