Fiji Village and Kava Etiquette

FJ

A Kava ceremony is a must on your to-do list of activities when traveling to Fiji, the traditional ceremony, where you come together as strangers and you leave as friends, and much laughter, singing, and friendships are born.

Table of Contents

What is Kava? and how is it grown?


Top Left: Drying Kava Root, Bottom Left: Local performing a Kava Ceremony Bottom Middle: Cobo Clapping hands Bottom RIght: Roots of the kava plant Piper methysticum cava. Right: Kava Leaf Stem and Nodes Far Right: Young Man pounding Kava Root
Top Left: Drying Kava Root, Bottom Left: Local performing a Kava Ceremony Bottom Middle: Cobo Clapping hands Bottom Right: Roots of the Kava plant Piper methysticum cava. Right: Kava Leaf Stem and Nodes Far Right: Young Man Pounding Kava Root | Image: Supplied

Yaqona (pronounce Yang-GO-na) known more affectionally by the locals as KAVA, is made from the pounded root of the pepper plant (Piper methysticum) (Image).  ‘The Kava drink produced from the plant is a nonalcoholic euphoria-producing beverage; yellow-green in colour’ (Rogers, 2020), commonly referred to as having an Earthy colouration.

Cultivation

Each kava plant has to be cultivated from a node on a segment of the stalk. Kava farmers take an existing kava plant, cut small pieces (3-5 inches) from the stalk, and plant them into the soil.    From here, you’ve got about 2-5 years of cultivation, nurturing, and growing before you end up harvesting the mature kava plant. (Birkett, 2019).  Kava is grown on mixed cropping fields, the farmer plants Kava with other staple root crops such as Taro, Yama, and sweet potatoes.

Environment

Fiji as a nation is an ideal place to grow kava as the climate is always around the range of 65-80 degrees Fahrenheit (or 18-25 Celcius), with the natural water and humidity, creating an ideal climate for the production of the plant.  The potency of the Kava Root will vary from one harvest to another, factors like rainfalls, altitude, soil conditions, and yearly weather patterns all affect the growth and concentrations of kavalactones in the final product.

On 7th February 2016 Tropical Cyclone Winston. the worst tropical cyclone in the Southern Hemisphere on record decimated the farms across the full breadth of the Fijian Archipelagos, creating a shortage of Kava throughout the Pacific Island countries.  Very similar to the growth rings of a tree, the subtle changes in their ecosystem are recorded, and the Yagona plant’s environmental changes correlate with the potency and taste of the final bilo of kava.

Harvesting the Domestic Market

The Kava plant is pulled from the ground and the root is cleaned, removing any tendrils, and placed on sheets of corrugated metal roof panels and left in the Fijian sun for a few days to dry out.  The root is then pounded into a fine powder, portioned out into small brown bags, and ready to sell or for personal consumption.  You use to hear of an evening, the rhythmic sounds of the neighbors pulverizing the root with a homemade mortise, as the metal pole hit the base, a deep thud rang out as the root is being smashed, and then a short chime of the metal pole hitting metal siding of the mortice as it is lifted out again, this could take anywhere from 10-20 minutes (Above Image).

Kava makes a significant contribution to rural livelihoods in some parts of Fiji, particularly on the outer islands where there are limited other opportunities, and is also important in cultural and social dimensions. Kava growers sell mostly dried kava for cash payment in the village or provincial town markets, while some are used within the rural communities to meet social obligations.   The majority of the kava is washed and sun-dried and packed in sacks or bales and transported by road and inter-island shipping to the major urban centers where it is sold to processors, wholesalers, and retailers. (Vula, 2016) (Main Image)

When is Kava consumed?


Kava ceremony on the Northern Yasawa Islands
Kava ceremony on the Northern Yasawa Islands | Image: Supplied

Kava drink is made by placing the pounded kava powder into a cloth, grouping all the sides of the cloth together, sealing the kava inside,  then pouring some natural water into the Tanoa or bowl, slowly massaging and filtering the water through the cloth mixing the powder with natural water, until the required texture and consistency are achieved.

The drink was historically made by cutting yaqona roots into small pieces, which were then chewed (generally by children or young women) and spat into a bowl, where the contents were mixed with coconut milk. The chewing of the root was believed to extract the active ingredients while producing a more delicious beverage. However, this practice is no longer common except among some locals. (JMCR, 2020)

Kava is consumed everywhere across the Fiji Islands, from having a few friends around to your home; armed only with an old cheesecloth or t-shirt to strain the kava and a couple of plastic bowls from the local hardware store to more formal traditional Kava Ceremony where a Tanoa is used, welcoming people to a village, or important events such as meeting chiefs, or a wedding, where a more strict protocol is adhered to, to show respect to the tradition and honor to the respective attendees.  For all major events of cultural significance, there is always a kava ceremony.  The Tanoa is normally a round wooden bowl, carved out of a piece of hard-grained timber from the Vesi Tree.   They vary in size from twelve to thirty inches and have short cylindrical legs to support the bowl.

Are there any common after-effects felt?


Fijian gentleman sitting on the ground laughing covering his mouth
A Fijian gentleman sitting on the ground laughing (covering his mouth) | Image: Supplied

Kava is considered a very safe drink in small quantities, it has a mild narcotic and sedative effect, where some people have experienced numbing of the lips, with the feeling of being completely relaxed, followed by a good night’s sleep.  Kava is a known antidepressant, too – they say that’s why Fijians are always so happy!” (Tech Insider, 2017).   

Visitor Advisory 1: If you are on any type of medication or are of ill health, we suggest politely declining this drink. If this is the case, extend both hands outwards with your thumbs overlapping and say ‘vinaka’, which means no thank you. (JMCR, 2020)

Visiting a Fijian Village


Panoramic view of Navala village in Fiji displaying the traditional Fijian bures in the foreground with highlands framing the picture.
Panoramic view of Navala village in Fiji displaying the traditional Fijian bures in the foreground with highlands framing the picture | Image: Supplied

Visitor Advisory 2: Dress Code – It is important to dress modestly when away from the immediate vicinity of your Fiji resort or hotel. Always carry a sulu (sarong, lavalava, pareu) to cover bathing togs or shorts and halter tops.  Fijians are known as the friendliest people in the world. Your respect for their Fiji customs and traditions will not only make you a welcome guest in their villages and homes but add another dimension to your Fijian holiday.

Visitor Advisory 3: Seven Important Tips about Visiting a Fijian Village:

  1. Dress modestly.
  2. Don’t wear shorts, and women must not wear halter tops and shoulders bare.
  3. Do not wear hats or touch anyone’s head. They are interpreted as a sign of disrespect.
  4. Always remove your shoes before entering any house or other building.
  5. Stay with your assigned host. If other Fijian villagers ask you to eat or accompany them, politely note that you are with your host and would be honored to visit with them at some other time.
  6. Speak softly. Raised voices are interpreted as expressing anger.
  7. It is inappropriate to take photographs or video footage throughout the ceremony.

Kava Ceremony Etiquette


Kava Ceremony at Yasawa Island Resort and Spa Yasawa Island, Guest sitting together on the beach receiving a bowl of Kava
Kava Ceremony at Yasawa Island Resort and Spa Yasawa Island Fiji | Image: Supplied

When visiting a Fiji village it is customary to present a gift of yaqona (kava). The gift, called a sevusevu, is not expensive, half-a-kilo (which is appropriate) costs approximately $30.  It is presented to the Turaga ni Koro, the executive head of the Fiji village. The presentation is usually in his house and will generally be attended by some of the older men who happen to be in the vicinity at the time and can quickly turn into a social occasion.

A small chant performed by the Turaga ni Koro at the doorstep of either a house or village hall signals your presence and intention to the people waiting inside. A reciprocal chant from those inside invites you to enter. (Rasigatale. 2019)

Upon entering the home, the Turaga ni Koro places the bungle of yaqona in front of the chief, staying below eye level, as a sign of respect. Within the Fijian language, the chief will recite a traditional monologue followed by three claps (cobos), accepting the yaqona gift. This is when the kava will be mixed, the First Tanoa is mixed solely for the chief and Herald. they will drink one after the other until the mixer announces the bowl is empty. 

A second Tanoa is then prepared from which everyone will drink.  A server will carry a bilo to the chief guest (you), When accepting this traditional Fijian drink, clap once with cupped hands, take the drink, and consume the entirety of it. Once finished, return the cup to the person who gave it to you and claps strongly three times.  The order of serving depends on the status of those present, from the highest-ranking, down.  After everyone has consumed their first bilo of kava, the official ceremony is over.

Fun Fact 1: Sometimes you will be offered the option of “HIGH TIDE,” or “LOW TIDE”  A high tide means you would like a full cup.  If you ask for a low tide, it means they will give you a half cup of Kava.

After the Ceremony


Local Village Mana Island Fiji Boy playing with the village cat.
Fijian kid on Mana Island Fiji playing with the village cat | Image: Supplied

After the Ceremony, much laughter, singing, and socializing happen around the kava bowl, kava is used to help people relax, build close connections, and decide on important issues together.  Once the kava ceremony is completed, you’re officially part of the village, you come together as strangers and you leave as friends.

Fun Fact 2: In a spiritual sense, the completion of the ceremony marks the moment when the two groups are united as one with a shared purpose.(RDI, 2020)

YouTube Video:  National Drink of Fiji


Description: A trip to Fiji isn’t complete without some kava, the country’s national drink. Known in Fijian as yaqona, or by its colonial nickname “grog,” kava is a muddy, earthy beverage that calms you and numbs your mouth and throat.

Tanoa Fijian currency


2 Dollar FJD scaled
Tanoa engraved on the Fijian 2 Dollar Coin

The Tanoa holds great significance in Fijian history and culture, with a representation of the Tanoa engraved upon the Flora and Fauna Currency released in 2013, a fiber cord with cowries can be observed in the depiction, this would be pointing to the guest of honor present at the ceremony. The Tanoa was previously featured on the first 1-cent coin, no longer in circulation.

Footnotes

  • Bilo | A drinking bowl that is made from the half-shell of a coconut.
  • Cobo | Literally means Clapping of the hands.
  • Sulu | Is a kilt-like garment worn by men and women in Fiji since colonisation in the nineteenth century. Etymology The word sulu literally means clothes or cloth in the iTaukei language.
  • Talanoa | is a generic term referring to a conversation, chat, sharing of ideas, and talking with someone. It is a term that is shared by Tongans, Samoans, and Fijians.
  • Tanoa | The Tanoa is a four-legged wooden bowl carved from a single piece of wood. Large bowls are used to prepare the ritual drink of kava (yaqona), which is made from the dried roots of a pepper tree. The ritual of drinking yaqona still remains one of the most significant ceremonies performed in indigenous Fijian society.
  • Waka | Waka comes from the lower tendrils of the plant and the kava is of more potent.
  • Yaqona (Kava) | A non-alcoholic euphoria-producing beverage made from the root of the pepper plant, principally Piper methysticum, in most of the South Pacific islands. The beverage is said to induce a state of relaxation, calm, and mild euphoria when consumed in small quantities.

References

  1. Britannica. (2013). Kava Root [Photograph].
  2. Birkett, A. (2019). Growing Kava: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide (2020). Cup of Kava. Link
  3. Getty Images (2007). Local performing a Kava Ceremony [Photograph].
  4. Rasigatale, M. (2019). Sevusevu 101. Fiji Marina. Link
  5. >RDI (2020). Immerse yourself in this traditional Fijian ceremony. Royal Davui Island Resort. Link
  6. JMCR (2020). What is a traditional fijian kava ceremony? Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort Fiji. Link
  7. Rogers, K. (2020). Kava. Britannica. Link
  8. Tech Insider. (2017, October 10). What It’s Like To Try Kava — The National Drink Of Fiji [Video]. YouTube. Link
  9. Vula, M. (2016). Domestic Market Dominates Kava Industry In Fiji. Fiji Sun. Link
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