August 18, 2011
Danawan Island is home to Sea Gypsies
By JANE F. RAGAVAN
Photos by RAJA FAISAL HISHAN
Even a short visit to this island in east Sabah will leave a lasting
DANAWAN is one of the bigger islands in the 9,300ha Semporna Marine Park in east
Sabah, but it is not as well-known as neighbouring Sipadan or Mabul. Although located along the Ligitan reef
complex which offers some of the best dive sites in the world, Danawan is not a tourist draw like those other
There are no resorts or beachside chalets on this 0.63sqkm island in the Celebes
Sea and no tour or boat companies to rely on for scheduled itineraries. If you’re lucky, you might catch the
three-hour ride back with one of the island residents who come to the mainland for supplies or to trade. Your
return passage is another story.
Village on the water: While there is a lot of open land on the island, the residents prefer to live in stilt houses
at the water’s edge.
Some even live in their traditional boats.
The Star’s assistant chief photographer Raja Faisal Hishan recently spent a few
hours on Danawan as a guest of the Malaysian Armed Forces, along with other members of the media, when Defence
Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi visited its joint forces command base there.
The military set up camp on the island after the hostage crisis in 2000 when the
militant group Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 21 people from a resort in Sipadan.
Danawan, also called Denawan (but not to be confused with Dinawan, a private
island with a resort in the South China Sea off Kota Kinabalu in west Sabah), has about 1,400 residents, most of
whom are Bajau, or sea gypsies. Their homes are built on stilts by the water’s edge but a few still live in their
traditional boats called lipa-lipa.
These young women are dressed up for a performance to welcome the visiting Malaysian Defence Minister and media to
An estimated 60% are illegal immigrants from Indonesia and the Philippines. Many
were born on the island but have no idea about their origins. There is a school on the island, but without proper
papers, most of the children cannot attend school, and spend every day finding new ways to pass the time, their
playful squeals breaking the quietude and sometimes rising above the incessant squawking of the
The population in many rural places and little towns in Malaysia often comprises
mostly old people and little children as the young people move away to bigger towns in search of work. In Danawan,
however, Raja Faisal saw many teenagers and young adults. They may not have television or much access to magazines
but they seemed clued in on fashion and the latest trends like people their age everywhere.
This is mostly a fishing community, but most of the catch is for personal
consumption. However, the diet is poor and what might look like sun-bleached hair is actually a sign of
To supplement their income, some people have started processing coconut and
selling them in dried form to be used for medicines and confectionery. The village youngsters hired to collect the
nuts are paid 10 sen for each one.
One of the sundry shops on Danawan
In the afternoons, when it is at its hottest and there is little to do, people lay
resting on the cool sand in the shade below their houses made of thatch and wood. Their skin is burned by years in
the sun and the rigours of an undoubtedly difficult life show in the weariness on their faces.
“But they accept that this is their life,” says Raja Faisal, “and they seem
happy.” - The Star