Getting the lepa on an even keel in the Philippines and Malaysia

By Pamela R. Castrillo

Most of the world regards land as supreme—as real estate, as the ground that produces agricultural goods, as host of communities that grow around government installations, churches and schools, and business establishments. Ancestral domain is land owned since time immemorial by indigenous cultural communities. Land is solid, steady, and firm, a place that “evokes metaphors, such as rooting and grounding,” according to Celia Lowe (2003).

In Island Southeast Asia to which the Philippines and Malaysia belong, it is not only land but also water that one can inhabit, that can be a place one can go home to. Water may be calm or choppy, but its surface may be more accommodating than land—especially if one asks the indigenous community considered to be the most maritime of the peoples of Southeast Asia—the Sama Bajau of Tawi-Tawi in Mindanao, Philippines. They are also called Sama Dilaut, meaning “Sama of the sea.”

The Sama Bajau as "sea people"

For the Sama Bajau, the sea unites them. Some say they’re named Sama because “sama-sama sila”— they are all together (Quiling 2019). They come as one—in the water that brings them closer to one another. Considered as the region’s “sea people,” the Sama are thus associated more with water than with land. Sama Bajau are in their element in the calm waters in between Sulu Sea and Sulawesi Sea. Their land counterparts—the Sama Dileya (or land-based Sama)—have settled along shores in stilt houses. The Sama are widely dispersed in the Philippines, with Sama communities in Manila and Dagupan in Luzon; in Tagbilaran, Dumaguete, and Cebu in the Visayas; and in Sulu, Zamboanga, and Davao in Mindanao (Jumala 2011).

Tawi-Tawi is possibly the only place in the Philippines that is predominantly Sama (Baguinda 2019). Tawi-Tawi is a little archipelago of 11 municipalities whose names are mostly sibilants—Sapa-Sapa, Sibutu, Simunul, Sitangkai, South Ubian, Tandubas, Turtle Islands, Panglima Sugala, Mapun, Languyan, and Bongao. The islands of Tawi-Tawi are off the beaten track, infrequently visited by tourists—local and otherwise. They’re at the southernmost tip of both Mindanao and the Philippines. Flights in and out are few and far between, but they’re almost within hailing distance from Malaysia. They’re closer, physically more proximate to Semporna, in Sabah, Malaysia, than they are to Davao, Cebu, especially Manila.

Tawi-Tawi and Semporna share fluid borders or border zones (Talampas 2015). Flowing in highly permeable boundaries are retail goods, such as tubes of toothpaste, reams of cigarette, packs of noodles, and foil-wrapped choco wafers that are Made in Malaysia (Vitug and Yabes 1998). Also riding the tides are peoples—the Sama Bajau, known as “nomadic maritime communities,” peace-loving peoples who would rather flee than fight. During turbulent times, they sail quietly for parts not really unknown to gain a measure of safety and security.

Sama migrations have resulted from significant sociopolitical events, such as the mid-20th century imposition of public education by the Americans in the Philippines, the 1970s clashes between the Moro National Liberation Front and the Philippine Army, as well as the declaration of Martial Law, among others.

Some of the Sama Bajau go-to moorages are in Semporna, which is the only district in Sabah in which the Bajau form an absolute majority of the population (Sather 1997). Migration studies affirm that substantial immigration from southern Philippines is one of the reasons for this.

Some Sama families in Semporna, a small town in the eastern coast of Sabah, say they come from Tawi-Tawi. Erik Abrahamsson (2017) confirms that Semporna is one of the strongholds of Sama Dilaut culture and the place with the highest concentration of boat-living Sama Dilaut, of whom most or perhaps all originally came from Tawi-Tawi. They are said to have traditionally crossed over to each other’s borders for security and for livelihood opportunities (Talampas 2015).

The Sama Bajaus traverse the Sulawesi Sea on boats that they make themselves. They usually move in small clusters consisting of 10-20 houseboats, each houseboat housing one family, with one community consisting generally of 50-150 individuals (Hoogervorst 2012). They are fishers, traders, and famed boatbuilders. H. Arlo Nimmo (1990) said that in the 1960s they were building 15 different types of boats, ranging from miniature boats and one-person dugouts, to bigger family-size vessels.

These boats close up distances and stay afloat for the Sama Bajaus to catch fish and collect sea cucumber and other marine products. They know where the food fish are, rowing or paddling to rich fishing grounds. None is richer than their maritory (marine territory)—Sulu Sea and Sulawesi Sea— two of the most biologically diverse marine environments in the world. Tawi-Tawi and the Sulu Archipelago are at the heart of the Coral Triangle, nicknamed “Amazon of the Seas” because of its resources that include coral reefs, fishes, clams, sea turtles, and mangrove forests. Within this Coral Triangle are Malaysia and Indonesia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and Solomon Islands (Muallil 2019).

While the Sama’s waterworld is unlike no other, they have never been known for overfishing or overexploitation of natural resources. Using spear guns, nets, and fish traps, they gather just enough for their subsistence and a little more. They then head for the shore communities to sell their fresh catch. Their watercraft make it easy for them to trade for cassava, rice, and other basic necessities. Fishing boats, such as bog’go, birau, bitok, junkun, tonda’an, are also used to move around among the houseboats at the moorages (Nimmo 1990).

The houseboat called lepa

Many of their boats, however, are more than means to go elsewhere or to earn an income. They serve a purpose bigger than just sailing or selling. This class of boats, in particular, functions as full-time dwelling space, i.e., as living quarters. These boats include the djenging, balutu, and lepa (also called pedlas). By the reckoning of many, the most attractive is the lepa, with its “flowing lines that sweep into a prominent jungar or prow” (the pointed or projecting front part of a boat).

Apart from its evident beauty, the lepa is unique in the sense that it is “designed to navigate in shallow, reefy waters … and to accommodate a residential crew by providing sleeping, eating, and storage areas” (Botignollo 1995). Its length is considerable (from 8 to 11 meters), and yet it can manage the shallows, the deeps, and the swells with ease. Boatbuilders say the lepa’s deck (upper, open floor that extends for the full length of the boat) can house two or three families when it is around five-arm’s length (approximately five meters). The average breadth is one meter and a half at the beam (Botignollo, 1995).

Given these characteristics, the lepa was a popular houseboat type that the Sama built, lived in, sailed in, and moored among many reefs that mark the coasts of the various islands of the archipelago of Tawi-Tawi. In the 1960s, more than half of the Sama population in Tawi-Tawi lived in houseboats (Nimmo 1990). These numbers have long since dwindled as more and more opted to live in houses built over the water or crossed the borders to friendlier shores, such as those of Semporna.

Building the lepa

The Tawi-Tawi municipality that is known for boatbuilding is Sibutu. As boatbuilder Jubal S. Muyong, 60, puts it, “One is not a true Sibutu native if one does not know how to build a boat.” The Sama boatbuilding tradition lives on despite the march of time because skills are transferred from father to son, from men to boys who become men.

According to Muyong (2019), on days the boys do not have to go to school, they are brought to the place where boats are built. The boys start off by getting to know the tools: they carry the blunt tools at around 6 years old, and then the tools with sharp edges some years later. They observe how things are done—not only by their own father but also by the other skilled carpenters who work with one another. They see how logs and planks are sawed, sanded, and fit together, then with pegs or dowels, and later with bolts and nuts.

At 16 or 17 years old, they join the workforce. The son works on one side of a boat while the father deals with the other side. Later, the son builds his own boat alongside the boat the father is building. “This way, if he is stumped, he can easily ask his father how to coax something into shape or how to fit a particular part in,” Muyong says. In time, the boy comes into his own as a boatbuilder as he imbibes the indigenous knowledge and skills through years of working alongside and associating with skilled boatbuilders. He learns the tools of the trade, the best possible wood to hew down, and the time-tested methods, among others.

Another Sibutu boatbuilder, Hadji Ippuk Jawah, 90, says he learned his skills from his father. He began to join the men who were building lepas at 17. One of the first tasks given to him was to gather wood from the forests with a team who knew where to go and how to do it. Nimmo (1990) said that this is among the hardest of tasks—felling the tree, splitting the log, and hauling it off to the seashore, where the lepa is built.

Jawah reveals that wood to make boats with is not gathered when there is a full moon because shipworms are up and about at that time. Shipworm (or tamilok) bore holes in wood submerged in sea water and undermine its integrity.

In the past, water currents used to bring in logs, says Doloh Sumalan, 52, a boatbuilder from Sanga-Sanga, Tawi-Tawi. These, along with wood from forests and mountains, are processed to make seaworthy boats. Preferred wood species are bahanan, gapul, and gag-gil. “Gapul is soft but tough, resilient in water, and resistant to shipworm,” Sumalan adds.

The traditional tool that cleaves wood is called patok. Depending on the handle attached to the blade, it is a hatchet, an ax, or an adze (Nimmo 1990). Woodworkers wield this along with the bolo, the quintessential Filipino cutting blade. Yet another tool is the mallet that drives borers or dowels in. In 2019, the boatbuilders use saws and high-speed power tools—with drill bits that create holes or cuts through wood for greater efficiency.

The anatomy of a lepa

However old or new the tools are, everything begins with laying down the keel (tad-as)—the structural element that runs along the centerline of a ship’s bottom—what Quiling (2019) calls the spine or the backbone of the ship frame. For the keel, Jawah swears by lupanga, a wood variety that can only be found in the forests of Sibutu.

Sumalan stressed that the keel needs to be one big and whole wood that is carved. “Other parts can be made of smaller pieces of wood that connect each to each,” he says.

One of the other parts is the hull (the body of the boat), which is built up using planks on both sides. These planks are secured using wooden dowels or metal bolts. The next part that is installed is the set of braces or ribs, which need to be cut from a single piece of badbad wood. These braces, which Muyong calls the skeleton, support the hull. He takes pride in the fact that the Sama build the hull first and then the braces next and still “obtain a perfect symmetry” while other boatbuilding traditions put the braces in before building the hull. Then, floorboards are added to make the deck, which serves as the house area and the open living spaces at either end of the boat (Nimmo 1990).

Sumalan confirms what we know: Then and now, they have had no need for [boatbuilding] plans or blueprints. Everything is inscribed in their memory. “The design and structure are in our mind,” casually gesturing to his head.

The final touches involve more carving and some painting. Carvers, who are male, add decorative designs “when the lepa can be floated already,” Jawah said, “even if the jungar is not yet in place.” The carvings can be done while the boat rests on one side or when the boat is turned over, with the top of the boat resting on the sand.

According to Nimmo (1990), carved prows feature combinations of motifs, such as leaves (dau’an-dau’an) and curlicues (kalo’on). Thrown into the mix is a pattern that appears fish-like (agta-agta). Other types of ornamentation are painted bands of geometrical shapes, such as squares containing triangles (pinis gunting) or circles inside triangles (sabit).

When the boat is right side up again, the roofing is attached. Nimmo (1990) explains that the roof, which is typically made of plaited nipa fronds, covers less than half the length of the total boat. It does not only shield the Sama family against the elements but also serves as a space for drying fish. The roof can also be taken down to convert the lepa into a sailing boat (Nimmo 1990).

The lepa as sacred space

The lepa, like the Sama shoreline house, is everyday space and more. Bottignolo (1995) identifies two axes in both spaces— the social axis and the religious axis. On the deck of the lepa, the social axis moves from stern to bow (from back to front or horizontally), while the religious axis moves from port to starboard (from left to right or vertically).

For both Bottignolo (1995) and Quiling (2019), the bow is the front door or the entrance to the boat, especially in ritual occasions. It is also the part that first connects with land when the boat docks. This section of the boat features a jungar, an elevated part “where the head fisher stands to search the seas for the schools of fishes,” Muyong explains. It is also where the igal dancer performs at weddings and other Sama celebrations. The social axis identifies the front as “entering into the social” and the back as “withdrawing from the social.” The back is associated with nonsocial activities, such as discharging bodily waste.

In the polarities of the religious axis, the right side of the boat is the sacred space. It corresponds to the head of the human body, which is seen as having greater value than the side of the feet. The right side is called “the wall of the head.” But, it refers not just to the human head but also to Umboh (also m’bo) himself, whom the Sama regard as the head of creation and of the human race.

In the words of Bottignolo (1995), The “wall of the head” becomes like a window opening to the sacred. Through this window the sacred enters … takes shape and becomes tangible in the course of various rites. In the boat, as in the hut, the liturgicoreligious activities take place on the side of the head, the most sacred place. This is where Umboh positions himself when he visits …”

Thus, the Sama lepa and the hut both carry a sacred mark even as they are part of daily life. “The Sama’s dwellings are their temples, and the Sama live in the shadow of the sacred” (Bottignolo 1995). The lepa at sea is both home and heaven, to Sama fishers.

Living and contemporary lepa tradition

Scholars have predicted the demise of the lepa since the 1990s. Bruno Bottignolo (1995) said “the once famous lepa is passing out of use.” Francis Jumala (2011) begins his study with “Gone are the days of the moorages and the intricately designed houseboats of the Sama Dilaut.” Ten years earlier, the lamentation of Nimmo (2001) is that “Their [the Sama’s] unique boat-dwelling culture is now part of the realm of the mbo’, or ancestors. The loss of that culture is a loss for Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and ultimately humankind” (Nimmo 2001: 233). Heritage officer Jesusa L. Paquibot (2016) states that “The Sama Dilaut ceased making the lepa some years ago.”

But the lepa continues to be built in Sibutu and Sanga-Sanga, as Muyong, Jawah, and Sumalan attest. Further, in Semporna where the Sama have been migrating to, houseboat use has been picking up. Erik Abrahamsson (2020) reports a lepa renaissance thus: “… the Sama Dilaut culture has thrived in Semporna during the last few decades, and there are still more than 100 houseboats in the region,” he discloses.

He states that the nomadic lifestyle is still flourishing, and concludes that “the boat-dwelling Sama Dilaut are often better off than their house dwelling kin.” The tendency is towards larger houseboats, with “the lepa being more commonly used by the Sama Dilaut from Sitangkai (Tawi-Tawi).”

Also instrumental in the revival of the lepa is the Regatta Lepa, a water festival in Semporna in the eastern coast of Sabah—one of the places where the Sama Bajau sailed to escape sociopolitical strife in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. The festival literature states that “The event pays homage to the unique lifestyle of the nomadic Bajau Laut (sea gypsies), whose cultural legacy has been handed down many generations” (Hussin and Santamaria 2015).

Began in 1994, the celebration was considered to be so unique that the Malaysian government decreed it a national festival in 2003. It is thus part of the National Tourism Calendar. Held annually in April, it has since then brought tourists—local and international—including heads of state to Semporna, in Sabah, on the island of Borneo.

Among the events of the Regatta Lepa are the following: lepa tug-of-war, small dugout boat (kelleh-kelleh) race, and a lepa parade on the waterfront. Prizes are awarded to the lepas that not only carry the best performers of traditional music and igal-igal dance but also display excellent ornamentation. Lepa owners, therefore, go to great effort to install sails (sambulayang), triangular pennants (tipas-tipas), and rectangular flags (panji-pangi) featuring traditional okir curvilinear designs, this time in cloth of varying colors. Each competing lepa represents a family and village from the region. Prizes include speedboats, boat parts, cash, and trophies and certificates (Regatta Lepa 2020).

One hopes that the state-supported celebration of Sama culture through the lepa will inspire the Sama to hold fast to their boatbuilding tradition and technology. But, the boatbuilders in Sibutu and Sanga-Sanga are an aging demographic. One wishes therefore that their children are learning at their feet, just as Jawah and Muyong said they did back in the day. Even if these young boatbuilders do not find the prized tree species in the bosom of the forests of Tawi-Tawi that the magnificent lepa is made of, they might yet find ways to build it in these strange COVID times. They might even build it for kith and kin who find that the sea calls out to them.

Probably more than the festival, it is probably their inextricable connection to water that will keep the Sama sailing. The lepa continues to provide something vital to the Sama: access to fish, freedom, and faith. Sama Bajau identity is moored to the lepa, which they consider both secular and sacred space.

In the Sama creation myth, “the world appears as an immense sea—a reality essentially fluid, dotted with islands that fix some points of reference in a space otherwise without direction” (Bottignolo 1995, 43). Many Sama of today view the sea as their land. The rhythms of the sea still beckon. Water, elemental and enduring, wave the Sama in from shore to sea. Out there, they navigate using islands, regional currents, and winds as guides. At night, their compass consists of the stars and constellations. Despite difficulties as stateless people at a time of climate change, they get their boats on an even keel, rack up nautical miles, and live their lives far from the madding crowd.


The seafaring Sama Bajau build watercraft out of wood. Sibutu boatbuilder Jubal Muyong lists some of the surviving types of Sama boats he knows of.

  1. The ped-das is the smallest boat in the Sama fleet. At times, it is tied to a lepa. It is used when a lepa is anchored in some moorage, and people need to go to the shoreline for the purposes of buying food or drinking water and of selling fish to residents of shoreline communities when the tide is low.
  2. The bog-go with is an outrigger boat for one. It is mainly used for fishing.
  3. A modified bog-go is a bigger version that the Sama use to go to their farm when they would rather sail than walk.
  4. The biral is a big-hulled vessel measuring 3 to 5 meters. Its front and back ends are pointed, like the Butuan balangay. Its main function is to transport cargo, e.g., coconut or cassava, from the farm to the home.
  5. In contrast to the biral, the kumpit is a passenger and cargo boat. It can ferry people from the island municipalities to Bongao, the capital town of Tawi-Tawi. It also carries cargo from Zamboanga to Tawi-Tawi.
  6. The damas is a flat-bottomed dugout with outriggers.
  7. The tiririt is a small, one-person fast craft that is akin to a speedboat.
  8. A kurikung is also a small craft.
  9. The lepa or pelang is a houseboat.

He also mentioned a sort of progression in building the bigger boats: pelang, then lepa, then kumpit.

Because huge timber has become difficult to procure, they have resorted to commercial lumberyards for plyboards.


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I acknowledge the First Peoples as the traditional owners of this land and their continued connection to land, sea, and cultures. I pay my respects to the resilience and strength of Ancestors and Elders past, present, and emerging, and extend that respect to all First Peoples of Mindanao on land, ashore, and at sea.