Kava: Polynesian Ceremony and Community
Polynesians share many similar cultural traits, from language and music to family structure. One of the most sacred of Polynesian traditions, the kava ceremony, is also one of the most well-known. Tasting like a wet dish towel to my unrefined palette, kava is a relaxant which was banned in 2003 by several countries because of medical concerns. A recent push to lift that ban (Fiji Times article, September 24) and a new University of Hawai'i study (Honolulu Advertiser article by Dan Nakaso, September 22) brings kava back into the news. Despite these developments, it is the tradition of the kava ceremony that interests me most.
Kava has many names: 'ava in Samoa, 'awa in Hawai'i, yaqona in Fiji, and sakau in Micronesia. The drink is made from the ground root of the pepper plant Piper methysticum. The root, a long beige stick about 2 inches in diameter, is ground to a pulp and then massaged in a sack made from coconut fiber and mixed with water to make the juice. The drink is collected in a wooden bowl with legs and one uses a half-coconut shell to scoop the liquid.
When studying abroad in Samoa, I encountered 'ava ceremonies in the market, villages, and government gatherings. My first experience was at a village near my school (University of the South Pacific at Alafua) where our language teacher, Elu, was the matai (head chief of the village). We attended church in the village and then had to'ona'i (the traditional Sunday meal). The to'ona'i included an 'ava ceremony, gift presentation, and plenty of food. I was impressed by the formality of the ceremony, but most moved by the community interaction it solidified. It is this gathering and sharing that is the real attraction of kava.
My experience with 'ava, as well as the reactions of kava drinkers quoted in Dan Nakaso's Honolulu Advertiser article, reiterated the sense of community that it brings to the Polynesian people. Kava, like dance, food, and art, is an important tie throughout Polynesia, and it is traditions like this ceremony that Seacology is working to preserve. You can see pictures of a Fijian kava ceremony at the dedication for a water tank and delivery system in Nasigasa Village, which Seacology provided in exchange for protecting 332 acres of forest land. At the opening ceremonies of Seacology-funded structures in Fiji, gift and kava ceremonies, like those I experienced in Samoa, are common.
These traditions are what bind communities, culture, and people. In a global world, culture can be disregarded as disappearing in a melting pot. But it is with continued attention to enduring and evolving traditions that we make the people on far away islands seem close to home. I hope to achieve this in a small way with this blog.