Badjao/Goodjao? What Difference Does it Make?

I have noticed a trend among many individuals and organizations who work among the Badjao to refer to them as “Goodjao” and in many cases encourage members of this tribe to call themselves by that name. This is based on a couple of things: a lack of knowledge about the meaning of the name “Badjao” and assuming that the definition of the word “Bad” is universal throughout the world. Many may feel that this is a harmless practice, but let me explain why it concerns me.

The name is spelled in various ways: Badjao, Badyaw, or Bajau. They are also known by other names such as: Sama Dilaut, Laut, or Orang Laut. Badjao (Badyaw/Bajau) is a Malay-Bornean word that means “people of the seas”.

The word “Bad” in the English language is considered to mean something negative and this is also true in many other languages and cultures. However, the word “Bad” in some languages can have an entirely different meaning. Here are a few examples of this; in Dutch and Swedish it means “Bath”, in Gujarati it means “Following”, in Hindi it means “After” and finally in Somali it means “Sea” just as it does in the case of our friends the Badjao.

By referring to the Badjao as “Goodjao”, we are inadvertently causing the people, especially the children, to feel a sense of shame towards their tribes given name and their community whether it be consciously or subconsciously. After all, “Good” is the opposite of “Bad”, just as “Light” is to “Dark”. Would it not be logical then for the Badjao to think that if they are now being called, or being encouraged to call themselves “Good”,  that they must have once been “Bad” in the negative sense of the word?

My reason for writing this is to remind those who do trans-cultural work that we must always respect the language and culture of the people we are serving. In the case of the Badjao, rather than us potentially causing them to have feelings of doubt or uncertainty about themselves by calling them by another name, lets instead encourage them to be proud of not only themselves, but also of their history and their traditions. After all, the Badjao are brave divers, skilled fishermen and extraordinary weavers. The Badjao are of royal blood, lords and ladies not of the land, but of the sea.