A Life at Sea

by Chadd McGlone
Chapel Hill, NC, United States

The Bajau people live on—not at, near, or beside—but on, the Sulu Sea in the South Pacific, subsisting on the fish they catch and the supplies they gather from nearby islands. By living literally on the water, some Bajau spend their entire lives with their whole families on lepa-lepa boats that are typically just 15 feet long by 5 feet wide. The average family size is between four and eight members.

Daily Life on the Water

A typical day begins with the patriarch waking his family at daybreak to motor to their fishing spot. The entire Bajau fishes together using hand-made nets and spears. The father free-dives to spear the fish, spending as many as five minutes underwater. When he surfaces with a catch, he tosses it onto the boat for the children gather and the wife to clean. Next, they cook the fish over a small fire in the stern of the ship.

After a quick meal, the family might travel to a nearby island to collect supplies and water. They gather branches and scrap wood left by local lumber workers to repair their boat. Bajau communities build wells to be shared among the people. The mother will take older children to the well to return with as much water as they can carry.

Permanent Dwellings

In contrast to these sea-dwelling families, other Bajau have moved to more permanent abodes off the shorelines of various islands. They construct these stilt homes themselves, using local timber. The houses’ supports are cut from palm branches and anchored into the sea floor. The residents then weave palm leaves together to form wind- and rain-resistant walls.

Stilt-home villages contain dwellings that are 40 to 50 square feet in size and are connected by various walkways. Each house is surrounded entirely by water and provides shelter for 10 to 15 people.

The economy in these stilt-home villages is driven almost entirely by profits from freshly harvested ocean creatures. A particular delicacy of the Bajau is the sea cucumber, a chewy, tasteless, invertebrate creature that acquires the flavor of whatever it’s cooked in. Many who love sea cucumber say it is an acquired taste, one that many have never acquired! Perhaps this is one place where you don’t have to eat your veggies.

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Math Questions

  1. If you lived on a lepa-lepa boat with your family of 6, about how much space could you claim each night to sleep?
  2. In groups, use string to lay out a lepa-lepa boat on the floor. Now, determine how you might use that space during dinner. Would you set aside a space for preparing the food or cleaning afterwards?
  3. On graph paper, design a stilt home for 12 people. If the home must be no more than 50 square feet, what dimensions might you use? Remember, you must place the bathroom (a hole in the floor) at the side of your home opposite the entry.
  4. If 15 people live in one house and 9 people live in another house, how many people live in 2 houses?
  5. How much wood, people, and tools are needed to complete a 15 feet long by 5 feet wide lepa-lepa boat ?

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Extension Questions

Do you think it is fair for the government to require Bajau children to attend school? Give some reasons these children would need to be educated. How could it benefit this society for children to stay home?

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  1. Daily Mail online article with photographs of Bajau children
  2. Webpage on the Bajau people
  3. BBC News story on how the Bajau have developed larger spleens to adapt to aquatic living
  4. Documentary on the Bajau lifestyle

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