A kava ceremony, is a must on your to do list of activities when traveling to Fiji, the traditional ceremony, where you you come together as strangers and you leave as friends, much laughter, singing and friendships are born…
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 coloration.
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 of the mortise, 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. The domestic marketing pathway is:
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 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.
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). However, 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)
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.
Important tips about visiting a Fijian village:
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)
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. 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)
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.