Kava Culture Across The South Pacific Islands
Drinking kava has been an important cultural tradition of most South Pacific island nations for many centuries. Kava’s cultural significance goes far beyond just being a beverage that is common to those islands. Kava is ingrained in everyday life and a ceremony is a long-standing part of their culture.
Throughout the region, kava drinking has been part of prestigious ceremonial occasions since ancient times. The installation of a new village Chief, agreements between communities, or the welcoming of an important visitor will always include a kava ceremony. In Tonga, the installment of the king or a Noble title is not complete until a kava ceremony is conducted.
While kava ceremonies may differ slightly depending on the island, there are many similarities. There is a traditional method of kava preparation in the Pacific Islands. The drink is often served to the individuals participating in the ceremony in a half coconut cup or bilo (Fiji) from a traditional, carved wooden bowl called a tanoa (Fiji) also known as a kumete (Tonga). Commonly, the first to receive the cup will be the Chief or highest ranking individual and the cup will pass through the group, in descending order based on rank.
These long-standing cultural traditions continue to this day. In 2018 the inauguration of Britain’s Prince Charles as an honorary high chief in Vanuatu included a kava ceremony. The prince drank from a cup of very special kava, known as Royal Kava that is reserved for such occasions and was last consumed when his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, visited in 1974.
His son, Prince Harry, also sipped kava during an official visit to Fiji with his new American wife Megan Merkel in 2018. Later, Prince Harry watched with interest a demonstration of kava production when he visited the Colo-I-Suva Forest reserve, just outside the Fiji capital of Suva.
Kava Drinking for Medicinal Purposes
In addition to ceremonial purposes, Kava has been used for medicinal purposes on the islands for many centuries. Village healers and medicine men would often turn to kava as a natural remedy and cure. Kava is highly valued by islanders for its ability to calm, relax and even sedate individuals displaying symptoms of anxiety and stress or struggling to sleep and rest. It is also used as a muscle relaxant and, certain varieties, as a diuretic. Learn more about the positive effects of kava.
Kava is used in village meetings for conflict resolution. In his book entitled “Savage Civilization” (1937), Tom Harrison describes how certain high-potency cultivars known as “War Kava” are drank as a means of facilitating open communication and dialogue. A kava drinking session would essentially be a last attempt for feuding tribes to come together to reach an amicable agreement. Combatants would gather and sit down to drink kava together and discuss their issues, often finding a way to resolve them without the need for fighting. Kava is often used as a peace offering in conflict situations.
In 2017, during the making of the Oscar nominated movie Tanna – a tragic love story along the lines of Romeo and Juliet – film casting decisions led to a dispute between two local tribes that was quickly resolved with an exchange of kava.
Kava Drinking in Everyday Life
Down the centuries, kava ceremonies started to be integrated into the celebrations marking everyday family and village life: births, weddings, anniversaries and funerals. In a traditional wedding ceremony a gift of kava is exchanged to symbolize the binding together of two families. The marking of the significant milestones in the life of an individual, family or community will all include a kava ceremony.
Now, kava culture has progressed even further. Today, on the islands, drinking kava for social relaxation is as common as drinking a glass of wine or beer is in the United States or Europe. Kava is certainly best known for it’s social aspects.
Fiji: In Fiji, yaqona (kava) is the official national drink. At a Fijian kava ceremony or Sevusevu, the drink is prepared at the start of the ceremony and not in advance. The first person to take a drink of the kava from the ceremonial bowl will be the Chief or most senior person in the group. The ritual requires the Chief and every subsequent person to clap once before and 3 times after drinking, many times cheering “Bula!” before a shell. Bula is a Fijian word that translates as a toast or wishing of happiness and good health.
Also, according to tradition, any individual visiting a Fijian village has to give a gift of kava to the head of that village. Similarly it is not uncommon for a visitor to be required to drink kava with village elders before doing business with the community.
This traveller and cave explorer tells the story in National Geographic Travel of how before he was permitted to visit Fiji’s largest cave system only after taking part in kava ceremony involving the village priest.
Throughout Fijian villages, families and friends commonly use kava for its relaxing effects. And both men and women drink it without any discrimination.
Vanuatu: Vanuatu is home to the most varieties of kava and is most likely where the plant originates. Kava is extremely popular in Vanuatu. An indication of this is that the main city of Port Vila has an estimated population of 45,000 people and over 250 kava bars. In Vanuatu a kava bar is referred to as a ‘nakamal’ or meeting place and traditionally, mainly men only were allowed to drink there. Today in Port Vila though you will see both men and women socializing around one of the many Nakamals in town enjoying freshly squeezed kava roots. At these spots, kava is usually served in the coconut shell although when visiting an urbanized location in Vanuatu, you will also see it being served in glass or plastic bowls. Today, in Vanuatu a drink of kava is usually prepared by modern mechanical equipment, but in many remote villages it is still prepared traditionally by pulverizing the roots using stone grinders. Sometimes you will even see kava root being chewed and then spat out into containers to make it ready for drinking.
Tonga: The style of kava consumption is vastly different in Tonga compared to the two countries above. In Tonga, only men can drink kava usually. Women can serve kava, but are not allowed to drink it. Interestingly this is an important part of courtship in the country. The ongoing tradition is for kava to be served in meeting clubs by young single women. The custom dictates that the girl who serves the drink should not be related to any member of the club as the drinkers can be vying for her attention for possible marriage. If the girl is a related to a club member, then that member is required to leave the club for that evening.
During a club meeting, the men talk and sing as they drink the kava. In Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga, the drink can be consumed only on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In some other locations it can be consumed any day. Kava drinking sessions or club meetings usually happen at night and can often last many hours!
Hawaii: Kava is known as Awa in Hawaii and there are approximately 13 unique types or varieties grown on the Hawaiian islands. Some of the most popular strains are Mahakea and Mo’i.
According to Wikipedia, the Ali’i or kings of pre-colonial Hawaii coveted these varieties for their strong cerebral effects caused by a dominant amount of the kavalactone, or active ingredient, kavain. These sacred varieties were so important to them that no one but royalty could ever experience them, “lest they suffer an untimely death”. Another variety, Hiwa, was offered to hula deities in return for knowledge and inspiration. It is referenced in a hula prayer for inspiration that contains the line, He ʻike pū ʻawa hiwa which translates as “a knowledge from kava offerings.”
Today, kava drinking is widespread on the Hawaiian island and there are many commercial kava bars operating 7 days a week frequented by both men and women. In Hawaii, kava is particularly popular for its stress-relieving effects and ability to relax muscles and bones. Kava is featured in local medicines as well as in social, religious, cultural and political events.
Kava Inspired Currency
Kava is so important, the currency of some of the countries of the South Pacific feature the traditional wooden bowl or tanoa used in a kava ceremony and images of kava plants (Vanuatu). Coins that depict the tanoa include a Fijian 1 cent coin, the limited edition 2009 American Samoa Quarter, a Fijian $2 coin first issued in 2012 and reissued in 2014, a Samoan Tala and the Vanuatuan 50 Vatu coin.
The Samoan Quarter was the fourth issue in the 2009 District of Columbia and U.S. Territories Quarters Program. The American Samoa Governor at the time established a committee to solicit and review designs for the reverse side of the coin. Over 60 submissions were put forward. The committee narrowed the selection down to three final designs, all of which included a tanoa.
One concept included a man with traditional Samoan tattoo holding an ava, (kava) bowl, another a traditional Samoan guest house with a head-dress and ava bowl and the third the ava bowl, a whisk and staff and coconut tree. Artistic renderings were produced by the United States Mint and sent back to the territory. Governor Tulafono then recommended that the design incorporating the ava bowl, whisk and staff and coconut tree be the American Samoa quarter and The Secretary of the Treasury approved this.
The use of a tanoa image on these currencies is a clear indication of the cultural significance of kava in the region. In Samoan culture the ava ceremony is considered the most significant traditional event. The whisk and staff on the coin symbolize the rank of the Samoan orator delivering speeches during these ava gatherings. Interestingly, the ava bowl, whisk and staff also appear on the Official Seal of American Samoa.
Kava Culture Summary
Kava culture is woven into the very fabric of life on the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Kava signifies friendship, achievements and unity. Kava culture is as real and alive today as it was centuries ago. Kava connects the past with the future.
Let us hope these important cultural kava ceremonies and traditions continue to be passed down from generation to generation.