– Ancient Fijian Kava Chant
Perhaps nothing reflects the Fijians’ reverence for tradition like yaqona (kava) drinking. Visit any Fijian village or home, particularly on a weekend, and you will probably come upon the spectacle of a family sitting on the floor around a large wooden bowl filled with a muddy-coloured liquid, drinking the contents from half a coconut shell. You will then be asked, “Mai dua na bilo?” (`Try a cup?’).
You definitely should try a cup, though don’t expect ambrosia. The drink is prepared from the pulverised root of (Piper methysticum), a plant from the pepper family, and has a tingly numbing effect on the tongue. The taste, not unpleasant, takes some getting used to and from a visitor’s point of view it is de rigueur at least to Tovolea mada (`Try please’).
The most important aspect of yaqona drinking is psychological. Sitting around a bowl in the village, exchanging talanoa (conversation, chat) and listening to the guitars hammer away is a very pleasant experience. Most importantly, the act of sharing a bowl creates an invisible bond between the participants. The visitor feels a warmth and acceptance among complete strangers that is normally associated with family or close friends. It is no accident that in Fiji many business deals and social contracts are consummated around a yaqona bowl.
Yaqona is a Fijian link to the past, a tradition so inextricably woven into the fabric of culture that life without it is unimaginable. Fijians would scarcely be Fijians without their national beverage. It is consumed ritually when welcoming visitors, sending village members on journeys, christening boats, laying the foundations of homes, casting magical spells, making deals, settling arguments and, as is usually the case, chatting. It is also presented as a sevusevu, a traditional gift offered by guests to the host, or as a token of respect to visitors of higher rank Kavain official ceremonies.
Yaqona drinking was an ancient custom when the first Europeans arrived, and its use today is still an accurate reflection of their observations. Basil Thomson, a 19th-century ethnologist, said:
The chief’s yaqona circle supplied the want of newspapers; the news and gossip of the day were related and discussed; the chief’s advisers seized upon the convivial moment to make known their view; matters of policy were decided; the chief’s will, gathered from a few careless words spoken while drinking, was carried by mouth throughout his dominions.
Legend has it that yaqona was derived from the Fijian god Degei (whose name means `from heaven to the soil and through the earth’), who asked his three sons where they wanted to live and what they wanted to do with their lives. They replied with where they wanted to dwell and what they thought their tasks should be. Degei was pleased but told his sons that although they had power and strength, they lacked the wisdom to make decisions. He gave them two sacred crops, yaqona and vuga (a type of tree) from which to draw wisdom. The sons in turn gave them to the people and to this day, goes the legend, the crops grow where the Fijian descendants live. (Photo above courtesy of Steve Leavitt, Union College)
A nonalcoholic beverage, yaqona has varying effects on the individual, ranging from a fuzzy-headedness to mild euphoria. The drink always acts as a diuretic and has been used as such by pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Early explorers spoke in awe of yaqona’s effects, but no-one knows for sure if their accounts were exaggerated or if the `grog’ was more potent in those days. One theory postulates that because the root was chewed (by young virgins) before mixing, the saliva somehow reacted with the active ingredients to intensify the effect. Another more plausible theory is that additives – possibly hallucinogenics such as `angel’s cap’ and `yaqoyaqona’ (Piper puberulem) – were added to the mix. C F Gordon Cumming, a noted travel writer who lived in Fiji from 1875 to 1880, noted that:
“Its action is peculiar, inasmuch as drunkenness from this cause does not affect the brain, but paralyses the muscles, so that a man lies helpless on the ground, perfectly aware of all that is going on. This is a condition not unknown to the British sailor in Fiji.”
Even though the chemical make-up of yaqona is known, organic chemists haven’t figured out the specific active ingredient(s). A pharmacologist from the University of the South Pacific, Yadu Singh, has made an extensive study of the drug and believes the kick comes from recently discovered compounds known as (alpha pyrones). Said Singh:
Their nature is not like a stimulant such as cocaine, but cannot be described as a depressant either. Yaqona has a calming effect somewhere in between.
Although yaqona is used primarily as a social drink, local healers have cured ailments ranging from tooth decay and respiratory diseases to gonorrhoea with it. Excessive yaqona drinking causes a host of disorders including loss of appetite, bloodshot eyes, lethargy, restlessness, stomach pains and scaling of the skin. The latter condition, known as kanikani by Fijians, is fairly common among heavy drinkers who may Kava consume up to half a dozen liters or more in the course of a day.
In villages the brew is generally consumed by men in a home or community bure, but occasionally women gather in the kitchen and drink among themselves. On other occasions an older woman may join the men and imbibe in an area that is usually all male. A woman visitor will generally be offered a bowl with no compunction; however, unless she is someone of rank, a man will be given the first opportunity to drink. In the cities where yaqona drinking is not so segregated according to sex, men and women can freely take a bowl together.
While some missionaries discouraged yaqona, which they referred to as a `filthy preparation’, some of the more enlightened students of culture saw its merits. Basil Thomson questioned the wisdom of the Wesleyan missionaries who denied Fijians their yaqona. He wrote:
The path of virtue for the native has been made dull enough already by the prohibition of all his ancient heathen distractions…
Thomson felt that, denied their grog, the Fijians would inevitably be swayed by the Catholic missionaries, whose policy was to make the lives of the Fijians `as joyous as they dare’. Thomson also recognised yaqona as a cure for the `great temptation’ that afflicted his fellow Englishmen in lonely tropical climes – alcoholism. Yaqona, he claimed, when substituted for spirits, satisfied the craving for liquor without producing intoxication. `In this respect,’ he wrote, `it is a pity that yaqona cannot be acclimatised in Europe.’
Today, although yaqona is central to the Fijian culture, it is controversial in terms of how healthy it is for economic growth. Whereas in the old days grog was strictly used for ceremonial purposes by chiefs or priests, today it is drunk copiously in villages, often to the detriment of gardening, fishing or other `productive activities’. Because of the negative side effects of this drinking, which certainly do not promote hard work, some Fijian officials have asked if excessive grog drinking is good for the country.
The kava plant, used to make yaqona, is cultivated like any other crop and is big business in Fiji. It thrives at altitudes of between 150 and 300 Kavameters and grows to a height of 3-1/2 meters at full maturity. Kava can be harvested after a year’s growth, but the longer it grows the more potent the brew. Potency also varies with geographic location, subspecies and method of preparation. Generally the dried root is used in making grog, but on occasion the green root or stem is utilised. The retail market price is from US$9 to US$12 a kg and it can be purchased as a dried root or pre-ground. Both forms are suitable as gifts and should certainly be considered when visiting a village or a household.
No one knows the origins of the plant but botanists believe it may have come from Java via India; from Java it was transplanted throughout the South Pacific during various migrations of islanders. Whatever the origins, kava is or has been used in the majority of the central and eastern Polynesian societies as well as in areas of Melanesia and Micronesia. Its use is documented as far north as Hawaii, as far south as Tonga, as far west as New Britain and as far east as the Gambier group.
In Fiji, yaqona drinking was and is the social cement that bonds society. The importance of its use today can be illustrated by an incident at the University of the South Pacific campus in Suva.
During a weekend beer-drinking bout, the age-old rivalry between Tongans and Fijians surfaced and a Tongan and a Fijian got into a fist fight. The Fijian got the short end of it, and the next day the offending Tongan was severely thrashed by a group of Fijians. The other Tongans on campus took retribution and a vicious cycle was set in motion. Soon no Tongans were safe on the school grounds and all had to be moved to another location.
One day the authorities got wind that both sides were going to meet en masse and police were summoned to prevent any bloodshed. However, instead of tribal warfare, the police found Tongans and Fijians sitting peacefully next to a yaqona bowl, where they played guitar and sang into the wee hours of the night.
Both cultures so respected the `peace pipe’ represented by yaqona that the score was settled over a bowl of grog and a public confession by the protagonists. The war was over.
But Is Kava Safe?
At the end of 2002, the kava export industry in Hawaii and other major growing areas had collapsed. At least 68 suspected cases of kava-linked liver toxicity had been reported, including nine liver failures that resulted in six liver transplants and three deaths. Countries in Europe, Asia, and North America had banned the sale of all kava products. In the U.S., where the Federal Drug Administration issued warnings but did not institute a ban, supplement sales plummeted.
Kava growers, users, and researchers were perplexed. Pacific Islanders have used kava for at least two thousand years without apparent liver damage. Is the plant harmful or benign? UHM researchers think it may be both.
Kava: Can new research Findings Restore a Tarnished Reputation?
These links to scientific papers are for the kava wonks:
- For the scientifically inclined
- Piperidine alkaloids from Piper methysticum
- Or visit this collection of scholarly papers all on kava research