Islands 101: The Basics

Lagoon in Ulithi Atoll. 

Habele donors and volunteers often ask questions about the daily lives of the people who live thousands of miles away in beautiful Micronesia. Go here to read, "Where is Micronesia?"

The Outer Islands of Yap provide a fascinating look into traditional island culture and lifestyle. Even today, many remote islands and atolls live in much the same way as they have for millenia.


Outer Islanders live in small villages facing the calm waters of the atoll’s lagoon. The lagoon provides a shallow, safe location for washing, swimming, gathering fish and shellfish, and launching canoes. This is an extremely valuable feature, considering that these tiny strips of land are surrounded by millions of square miles of some of the deepest water on Earth!
Off the beach, extended families live in houses that were traditionally constructed of hand-carved timbers and leaf thatching. Depending on its size, a family may occupy a small cluster of houses,  and have a separate shed-like structure for cooking meals and mingling. Islanders sleep in hammocks, or on raised wooden platforms in the house. In recent years, access to concrete and sheet metal has meant many houses are a melding of traditional design, and whatever modern materials are available.

Traditional home on Ulithi
While family units may gather for meals, not everyone sleeps under the same roof. Men and boys regularly spend their evenings in the mens’ house, one of the most traditionally important buildings in a village. This unique structure provides a traditional location for men in the village to eat, sleep, store canoes, and meet to discuss community affairs. Building projects, fishing trips, and project planning - like typhoon recovery - would be laid out by community leaders in the mens’ house. Mens’ houses remain strictly segregated. Women have a building of their own that is similarly off-limits to men.

Women on the tiny island of Asor (Ulithi) prepare food in the family cook house
An Outer Islands village like the ones on Ulithi Atoll may include an small elementary school building, a feast hall or meeting house, a church, and a number of sheds for the storage of food and fuel.


Outside the main village are areas designated for growing food. Most of these  growing plots are located near the center of the island, and used for the cultivation of taro plants. Taro grows in swampy, low-lying areas, and produces a starchy stem and edible leaf that are a staple food source for island communities. Other regularly produced crops are coconuts, breadfruit, and bananas. The thin, nutrient-poor soil makes the regular production of many species of plant almost impossible. Outer Islands like those in Ulithi Atoll lost their taro patches and fruit bearing trees in Typhoon Maysak. Some families may have pigs and chickens that wander the island, although not in large numbers.

Women and children provide the care and labor for taro patches, leaving men in the village to focus on the crucial task of gathering food from the sea. Using hand carved outrigger canoes, Outer Island men paddle through the lagoon to check fish traps, cast nets, and dive to pursue small fish with spears. Larger fish cruise the depths outside of the lagoon, and often the men will paddle beyond the relative safety of the lagoon to bring home large catches for sharing in the village.  Outer Islanders have traditionally been willing to make long, open-ocean voyages in canoes to trade resources with other islands.

More "Islands 101" posts coming soon. If you have friends and family curious about Micronesia, please share with them!

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Outer Islanders are famous for using outrigger canoes to travel
fantastic distances across the open ocean.