Kaliyawan! Begging for a living


Discussing the Sama Dilaut’s fate, anthropologist Harry Arlo Nimmo wrote some thirty years ago that should fishing become no longer viable, “the Bajau (Sama Dilaut) will have to look elsewhere for sustenance.” Little did he know that their last recourse would be the streets. From Zamboanga to mainland Mindanao and to as far as Cebu, Manila and the provinces of Luzon, Sama Dilaut beggars are making a living — knocking at cars, standing at gates, barging into stores and restaurants, needling passersby for a few centavos or a peso. The occupation might have started as individual forays of a few families into the city after having been driven from the seas of Sulu, but in time ag-pangamuh or begging became a legitimate way of earning an income. It has also become more “organized”, with certain “rules” to ensure survival.

Unlike most street children and homeless “derelicts” Sama Dilaut beggars do not venture into the streets without a family to go home to. On the contrary, they beg in the streets for their family. Sometimes they go out in pairs: mother and infant, grandmother and grandchild, father and daughter, husband and wife, sisters, etc. – each one playing a role according to what they perceive would appeal to their would-be benefactor. Those with disabilities manage to put their physical defects to good use: Due to dynamite fishing which almost all of them engaged in when they were still fishing in the Sulu waters, cut hands or fingers, deafness and blindness are among the common features of the “disabled” Sama Dilaut men. Fit ones play handicapped, and the shabbiest clothes are worn with a tattered bag to match. The more “ingenious” of the men would slip on a torn skirt with appropriate buri hat and old cloth to cover their heads.

Every Sama Dilaut beggar is affiliated with a kampung or si-it (family or relatives) belonging to one community or da mundah. Each mundah has a recognized head. (Da mundah literally means “one moorage”; for sedentary and land-dwelling Sama Dilaut, the phrase refers to a group of people heeding a common decision.) Decision to leave a place and move to a more profitable “moorage”, usually, some shore in the fringes of a lahat-bisaya or Christian land is arrived at collectively. The decision is made after adequate information on the “viability” of the next place has been gathered.

The Sama Dilaut beggar, having been there long in the trade, has mastered the craft and had become keen in negotiating the intricacies of the “beggar market.” As though still following the monsoon rain, beggars go to the cities according to “seasons”. Peak is in December when the Catholic country is most generous and people are throwing away their yearend bonuses. During slow months, they go to new places where people are yet unannoyed by their beggar faces. Others simply stay home and live on their “savings.”

Sama Dilaut beggars interviewed defend their occupation as ‘ng-ga-i makaiyah-iyah (not shameful) as compared with theft. They go to lengths just to be able to engage in the trade: getting an endorsement letter from anybody they perceive to be more respectable and credible than themselves;  making use of voter’s IDs and the like which they believe legitimize their existence and their occupation; showing pictures, papers or any other document procured from chance encounters with benevolent groups and institutions. Being so “employed”, beggars also wake up early morning to be “on time” for work and make sure that they have a place to rest by night time.  During a data gathering in the slum area of Tulay-Tabako in Cagayan de Oro where a “settlement” of Sama Dilaut dwellers has been established, a group of old widows from Basilan came to the house of one of the key informants. Each paid a rent of P5.00 to be able to sleep there for the night. As early as 4:00 a.m. they were all up and ready to stalk the streets.

For families engaged in angamuh or anarget (i.e. to beg), household members go out alternately. For instance, if the husband’s income for the day would be “enough” for their upkeep, the rest stay at home. “Enough” usually means two meals a day composed of cassava and fish and a few pesos to set aside for fare money should they decide to “work” in another place. In some households adults and children take turns in working. Children prove to be reliable income earners, owing to their “dependent status”. In Cagayan de Oro, children engage in anged-jo (diving for coins thrown by boat passengers) fetch earn between P40 and P70 a day.

That the begging trade has its “risks” is one fact of life among the Sama Dilaut. A case in point is ‘Mboh Kuraisiya of Tulay-Tabako in Cagayan de Oro City. When she went to Manila in December she borrowed an amount of P1000 for her boat fare to be able to engage in begging there. At day she walked the streets bearing with the heat, gas exhausts, the flood, the honking jeepneys and the dizzying crowds of pedestrians. At night she slept sitting up inside a disposed container at a junk yard of North Harbor in Tondo. She was able to earn some P3000 even before the Christmas season was over. When the port area burned down, she lost all her money. She however refused to blame her luck and only said that “business is like that, there would be gains as there’d be losses.”

In fact, loss of life and limb is all part of the Sama Dilaut world. In May of this year 15-year old Jilkabri never surfaced again after trying to retrieve a coin thrown underwater by a boat passenger in the dock of Iligan City. The boy’s mother, Julpina, said that her son must have been caught between the boat’s propellers. There was however no sign whatsoever of the boy’s body found in the propellers. While saddened by the boy’s death, Julpina does not blame anged-jo for her son’s fate. Jilkabri’s folk even believe that his body had been taken by the saitan (sea spirits).

Interestingly, their pangusaha (occupation) does not thrive well in places they come from. In Jolo, where most of them escaped from out of their dread for the A-a Suk (Tausug), nobody “buys” their trade. Their usual tale of harassment is that they left the Sulu seas because of the mundu (pirates) and the Tausug who would take away their fish, boat and engines. While their accounts of abuse from these malefactors may be true, there are contrary claims attesting to their indebtedness to their assailants. Bruno Bottignolo, an Italian priest who wrote a book on the Sama Dilaut belief system, said that it is hard to find a Sama Dilaut that is without a debt. He also pointed out the importance of a boat to their survival. A Sama Dilaut without a kumpit (a motorized outrigger boat), according to Bottignolo, is without a means of escape.

James Warren, a historian, wrote in 1981 that traditionally, some of the  Sama Dilaut (specifically the Sama Sama Dilaut Laut or sea-faring Sama Dilaut) maintained a “clientage” relationship with Sulu chieftains as pearl divers and tripang (sea cucumber) fishers. For provisioning the latter’s trading needs, they are assured of the datus’ (or the Sultan’s) protection. At present, the same relationship is found in the partida system wherein a Sama Dilaut fisherman enters into an agreement with local businessmen and big fishermen. Under this arrangement the fisherman borrows capital for fishing on the condition that all his catch will be sold to the lender at a much lower price. Eddie Ti-ul, a Yakan panglima in Tulay-Tabako, said that most of the Sama Dilaut in the Cagayan de Oro community had debts left in Sulu and Basilan, that is why they are afraid to go back there. Usually the Sama Dilaut would borrow money from Tausug businessmen for their fishing “expedition”. However, upon return, they would not pay, but instead, sell their catch to others.

In dealing with charitable institutions and development programs, the Sama Dilaut seem to enjoy the same kind of patron-client relationship. Relief projects provided out by these institutions appear to be the biggest luck they could have in their pangamuh. This comes in the form of free houses, boats and engines and, most importantly, protection. Though they sometimes refer to these dole-outs as “loan” and although their benefactors introduce these to them as a way out of their beggary, the Sama Dilaut recipients generally look at these as “alm”: they have no obligation whatsoever to repay.

One thing for which the Sama Dilaut are noted is their unique “sense of gratitude”. To them, accepting offered assistance is in itself a favor to the giver. This typical Sama characteristic is best described by this usual response: “naa, bang ilu na, baya-an na koh kita minsan ‘mbal.” (Well, if it’s already there I will have to like it even if I did not like it in the first place).

By and large, pag-amuh as an economic activity promises to stay for some time more. For as long as there are no other means known to them to survive on and for as long as society’s “sympathy” for their sorry lot is not exhausted, their trade will thrive on.

* HAGS, Incorporated is a women research collective engaged in gender-specific conscientizing research among less-known Moro ethnic groups and indigenous peoples in Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan. The team, composed of Mucha-Shim Q. Arquiza, Sheilfa B. Alojamiento and Rizalina T. Enriquez,did a participatory action research  among the itinerant Sama Dilaut of Iligan City in 2000.


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

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