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.
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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