One week prior to my departure for the island province of Tawi-Tawi I received an email from the U.S. Embassy in Manila, “We strongly advize that U.S. citizens should continue to defer non-essential travel to the Sulu Archipelago, due to the high threat of kidnapping of international travellers and violence linked to insurgency and terrorism”.
This region of the Philippines never gets good press and even among local Filipinos has a very negative reputation. If you mention you are going to Mindanao many will look at you with genuine concern.
Mention Sulu and most won’t even comprehend it, as if the place doesn’t really exist.
Tawi-Tawi is the southernmost province of the Philippines, with roughly 300 surrounding beautiful islands. Its name is a projection of the Malay word jauh meaning “far.” Precolonial travellers from the Asian mainland would repeat the word as jaui-jaui to mean “far away” because of the distance to the islands. The term tawi-tawi was a later variation of this, that eventually became the official name of the province.
There is certainly huge potential for tourism, but given the dangers and difficulties of travel, it is likely to be many years before significant development.
The Tausug and Sama-Bajau are the two dominant ethnolinguistic groups of the region and have coexisted with each other throughout history. The Tausug originally had a large independent state known as the Sulu Sultanate, including parts of Palawan, Malaysia and Indonesia. When the first Muslim missionary arrived in Sulu in 1380, the Tausug adopted Islam, and today the majority of Tawi-Tawi’s population is Muslim.
The Sama-Bajau are also originally from Sulu and live their lives oriented around the ocean. Sama-Bajau is really a collective term, used to describe several closely related indigenous peoples who consider themselves a single distinct ethnic group in Tawi-Tawi. Historically, the term ‘Sama’ was used to describe the more land-oriented groups, while ‘Bajau’ was used to describe the more sea-oriented, boat-dwelling, nomadic groups.
Today, most of the Bajau have long abandoned, or been forced to abandon boat living, and now build piling houses in the coastal shallows.
Early on, we stumbled upon a small Sama-Bajau community not so far out from the center of Bongao, the captial of Tawi-Tawi. There was a lot of activity happening and people were beginning to set up a stage area in the center of the community. We found out that they were preparing for a wedding that would take place later in the evening. A Bajau wedding! Something that I had always hoped to witness, I asked if the bride and groom were around, and sure enough they were close by.
The bride was young, perhaps not even fifteen, and looked very innocent. I was captivated by the beautiful henna tattoos on her hands.
We talked for a while about the meaning of her tattoos and about her wedding later that evening. I learned that it is customary for the Sama-Bajau to marry off young women when they come of age. After a while, her husband-to-be also came out and they both agreed that I could take their photos. It was a lovely, spontaneous interaction. Although we were not able to make it back for their wedding later that evening, I was very happy to hear later that everything had gone well for the young couple.
Soon after arriving into Tawi-Tawi, I noticed that many of the women had applied burak, a natural sunblock, to their faces. Hoping to photograph this custom, I was delighted to come across a spunky group of women. I spent a good hour with them laughing, interacting, and taking their portraits.
Generally, within Sama-Bajau communities, it is only women who apply burak to their skin.
Then they decided to show us the traditional process of making burak paste. A unique experience, an afternoon that I will certainly not forget. Preparing burak requires a few different processes. One of the first steps is to manually pound rice and tumeric together into a paste. Turmeric’s high antioxidant content makes it beneficial for the skin and also adds protection from the sun. This mixture is then applied to the face as a wet paste, and dries to create a white or yellowish coating.
Four hours by speedboat brought us to the remote municipality of Tandubas. We had come to visit the hometown of the most recognized master mat weaver among the Sama-Bajau people, Haja Amina Appi. Tawi-Tawi is well-known for its expert weaving, and many unique colorful mats with complex geometric patterns are hand-made.
Among the Sama-Bajau, mat weaving is a process exclusive to the women, from harvesting the pandan leaves, to the execution of the design.
When I arrived, I met a lady weaving in her home and asked if I could photograph her. Weaving is a common craft shared by a number of different indigenous groups through the Philippines, and over time, I have come to appreciate this craft even more. Before leaving Tawi-Tawi we were all given a traditional mat as a token of our visit. It really is beautiful, and the vibrant colors and quality are exceptional.
Though my visit to Tawi-Tawi was short, it was filled with lasting impressions, new friendships, and sparked even more curiosity to explore the stories of other places and people living in the Sulu archipelago. Like most new places I visit, no matter the length of time, I always feel that I didn’t stay long enough. There is still so much to learn.
Joro runs trips to the Philippines and other remote destinations around the world. Get in touch to start your journey with us.
Photos and words by
Documentary photographer based in the Philippines. I’m passionate about issues related to the human condition, culture, and humanity’s interactions with the natural world.