Filipino 'sea gypsy' braves storm to escape poverty trap

Indigenous teacher using education as tool to save his tribe from misery, smash stereotype of Badjao as beggars
Filipino 'sea gypsy' braves storm to escape poverty trap

Jesus Menjani Esmani belongs to the Badjao ethnic group, also known as the Sea Gypsies because they often live on houseboats (vintas). He is the first person from his tribe to become a teacher. Here he is pictured with his students at Bato National High School in Bato, Leyte, Eastern Visayas, in September. (Photo by Lottie Salarda/

Jesus Menjani Esmani is the pride of his tribe, which identify as indigenous Badjao or "Sea Gypsies" from the Philippines' Visayas Islands.

In his 22 years as a teacher, he has helped a handful of people from his impoverished community escape the poverty trap by getting an education and pursuing ambitions they never thought possible.

His tribe hails from the village of Dolho in the central Philippine town of Bato in Leyte province. It has already produced two electrical engineers and three college graduates as a result of Esmani's efforts — a marked difference from the ethnic Badjao children who dive for coins just to feed their families.

Also known as the "nomads" of the Sulu and Celebes Seas, the Badjao are scattered along the coastal areas of the southern Philippines and parts of the Visayas.

They are usually found living on houseboats, where they make a living as fishermen, deep-sea divers, and navigators, despite fleeting attempts to improve their lot by introducing literacy programs on "floating classrooms."

They come ashore to barter seafood for farmed produce such as fruit and cassava.

Esmani is the youngest child of a Badjao family that lived off the coast near the village of Dolho.

"Whenever there was a storm, that meant no food for us to eat," he said, recalling his childhood. "It was painful to see my family endure that."

With the encouragement of teachers from nearby communities and the help of his siblings, Esmani managed to school and get himself an education.

"I dreamt that one day I would have a job," he said.

To help fund his college studies, he bought food from wholesalers at reduced prices and sold it to anyone who was interested: teachers, classmates, and friends alike.

"I used to give promissory notes to the school because my parents weren't able to raise my tuition money," he said.

To further augment his meager income, he cleaned classrooms, offices and toilets at the school.

Esmani said during those times he focused on how much tougher his father's life was as the family patriarch, having to deal with the wrath of nature as he steered their boat to safe harbor through fierce storms and choppy seas.

In 1996, the ambitious young man was able to finish his education and begin teaching in the town of Bato. He described being able to pass the gift of education to others members of his tribe as a rewarding experience.

But it wasn't always plain sailing attending a regular school as a member of an indigenous tribe, he told

He remembers being bullied on so many occasions that he forgot how many tormentors he faced, or how many times they picked on him.

That grueling rite of passage did not deter him from his dream, though. He soon realized education was the main key to unlock his friends and family from the prison of poverty.

"I don't want to see any more Badjao children in the streets begging for money," said Jesus. "They should be in school not on the streets."

It's not uncommon to see tribal children begging in major cities throughout the Philippines.

"I want to change the image of my tribe, from beggars to something better," Jesus said, adding that improving their education would be instrumental in breaking down the barriers put in place by discrimination.

Salvador Lampinigan, one of Esmani's nephews who also earned a college degree, said he plans to follow in his uncle's footsteps one day and serve as a teacher for young people in his tribe.

The Bajao tribe has been displaced for decades since war broke out in the southern region of Mindanao in the middle of the last century, forcing many to flee to other islands. About 100 Badjao families are now living in the coastal area of Bato, Esmani's home.

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