Sahaya: looking at the Badjaos in a new light


Once in a while, we chance upon a teleserye with social relevance.  One of these is “Sahaya,” GMA 7’s  surprise offering.  The TV series invites viewers to look at the culture of the Badjao or Bajau, an indigenous tribe of nomadic fishing people in the Sulu and Celebes Sea.   And this comes to life on screen  through the riveting story of Sahaya, a beautiful and intelligent Badjao girl.

The title role is performed  exceptionally well  by Bianca Umali who plays opposite Miguel Tanfelix.  A tribe of Badjaos, also called “sea gypsies” or “Sama Laus” is shown making their living by fishing and weaving mats and  baskets.  Sahaya’s mother, Manisan (Mylene Dizon) is in jail.  Wanting to protect her daughter, Manisan had owned up to a crime committed by Sahaya who stole food and killed the man who attempted to rape her.  With her mother locked up, Sahaya grew up under the care of her grandparents.

Following her mother’s advice to excel  in school to escape their life of poverty, Sahaya studies hard and finishes on top of her class.  But the culture of favouritism and “palakasan”  rears its ugly head:  the school’s principal, wanting to please the vice mayor, who is close to Farida’s mother, orders the teacher to change their grades.  Consequently, Farida  (Faith de Silva), the principal’s favourite, got higher grades  compared to Sahaya.  Undaunted, Sahaya sought the help of the town mayor, who ordered a quiz bee to show who the real Valedictorian should be.  Despite the cheat sheet given to Farida by the principal, Sahaya was able to answer all questions for a perfect score for both contenders.   A tie-breaking essay was called by the town mayor, which was won by  Sahaya.  Truth and honesty had won the day.  On her graduation, a tearful Sahaya offered her medal to her mother, Manisan, who was granted leave to attend her graduation, escorted by two jail guards.

The plot  makes a sharp turn towards anger and revenge:  an embittered woman, Salida ( Snooky Serna), had a score to settle with Manisan.  Salida plotted to punish Manisan by ordering some men to abduct Sahaya and sell her to the captain of a ship.  Sahaya fights off the captain’s advances, fleeing from her captors by diving into the sea.  Her captors shoother.  She is hit and she falls, unconscious, sinking into the sea.  There the story ends, till the next day, where we are shown a sneak preview:  a businessman played by Eric Quizon negotiates to buy the Badjao’s homes  and turn it into a resort.  Sahaya’s grandparents refuse the offer.  We are given a preview of another potential conflict situation, where there is a suggestion that Eric Quizon’s powerful and wealthy character will join forces with  Snooky Serna’s revenge-driven character to pounce upon the hapless Sahaya and her family.

The teleserye’s  message rings loud and clear:  obtaining an education is a good equalizer in life.  One can triumph over adversity by gaining knowledge and education.  This is possible through sheer determination, perseverance and fortitude.  The total support of the group (her Badjao tribe) also played a role.

More than these, the teleserye leads viewers to look at the Badjao in an enlightened way.  The ongoing conflict between the government and some Muslim groups had pushed the peace-loving Badjaos out of their houseboats in the Sulu and Celebes Sea into the towns and cities.  Some have migrated to Sabah in Malaysia and Kalimantan in Indonesia (Peralta, Jesus, Glimpses:  Peoples of the Philippines,  2000.

With little skills and education,  Badjao refugees resort to begging, diving for coins thrown by inter-island ferry passengers, selling grated cassava, mat-weaving and jewellery-making, especially made out of pearls (Braccamonte, Nimfa, Astrid Boza amd Teresita Poblete, “From the Seas to the Streets: the Badjau in the Philippines” IPEDR Vol. 20 (PDF) 2011 International Conference on Humanities, Society and Culture, pp. 287-291).  Braccamonte, et. al. notes that local government units in the country have initiated efforts to rehabilitate the Badjao tribe and teach them livelihood and survival skills.

But there is still more to be done.  We still see Badjaos begging in our streets – poor, illiterate and ill-equipped to make a sustainable living in the towns and cities.  Badjao children could be given incentives to go to school in any of our public schools.  Further, government and NGO-sponsored skills training and work-readiness workshops can also be held for these indigenous people  to tap their natural talents in fishing, deep-sea diving, jewellery- making, mat-weaving.  Skills in weaving handicrafts could be a potential niche for them.   Entrepreneurs could hire them as workers in their souvenir and home décor shops and can benefit from their natural weaving skills.  The private sector, through foundations and charities, can also donate houseboats, fishing gear and equipment so they can do what they do best:  fishing as a livelihood.

The Badjaos are part of Philippine society.  Our duty as citizens is to treat them as one of us, accept them and teach them work and life skills.  We all deserve a life of dignity.