Our Kava Culture
Kava is consumed in various ways throughout Vanuatu. Traditionally, it is prepared by either chewing, grinding or pounding the roots of the kava plant. In Penama Province, grinding is done by hand against a cone-shaped block of dead coral; the hand forms a mortar nd the coral a pestle.
Kava is a particularly appropriate symbol of Vanuatu’s custom and national identity. Recent chemical and genetic analyses suggest that Piper methysticum was domesticated in northern Vanuatu about 3,000 years ago (see Lebot 1989; cf. Brunton 1989). Early farmers, perhaps first attracted by the plant’s medical uses, developed kava by selecting and cloning individuals of a Piper species (Piper wichmannii) that grows wild in northern Melanesia. From Vanuatu, Pacific voyagers and settlers carried kava cuttings eastward into Fiji and most of Polynesia (Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti and the Society Islands, the Marquesas, Hawaii, etc.), and also northward to two Micronesian islands (Pohnpei and Kosrae), and finally westward into scattered locales on the large island of New Guinea. Vanuatu, however, remains the zone of kava’s greatest genetic, chemical, and morphological diversity. More varieties of kava exist here than anywhere else in the Pacific (see Labot, Merlin, and Lindstrom)
Kava is consumed in various ways throughout Vanuatu. Traditionally, it is prepared by either chewing, grinding or pounding the roots of the kava plant. In Penama Province, grinding is done by hand against a cone-shaped block of dead coral; the hand forms a mortar nd the coral a pestle.The ground root/bark is combined with only a little water, as the fresh root releases moisture during grinding. Pounding is done in a large stone with a small log. The product is then added to cold water and consumed as quickly as possible. In Tafea Province boys chew, spit out, and infuse mouthfuls of rootstock for their elders to drink. The trick is to break up the root fibers in order to release the psychoactive, insoluble kava resins in a water emulsion. In town, the larger urban nakamals nowadays use hand-cranked or electric meat grinders to prepare their rootstock supplies. The taste is slightly pungent, while the distinctive aroma depends on whether it was prepared from dry or fresh plant, and on the variety. The drink has an earthy, peppery flavor. The colour is grey to tan to opaque greenish.
Kava prepared as described above is much more potent than processed kava. Chewing produces the strongest effect because it produces the finest particles. Fresh, undried kava produces a stronger beverage than dry kava. The strength also depends on the species and techniques of cultivation. Many find mixing powdered kava with hot water makes the drink stronger.In Vanuatu, a strong kava drink is normally followed by a hot meal or tea. The meal traditionally follows some time after the drink so the psychoactives are absorbed into the bloodstream quicker. Traditionally, no flavoring is added.
In most rural areas of the country, adult men gather at the end of the day to enjoy a coconut shell or two of kava. Unlike Polynesian societies that prescribe a polished etiquette of kava preparation and service wherein drinking order signifies local chiefly hierarchies, Vanuatu’s more informal kava drinking practices tend to accentuate male equality – men bring along kava roots and share them with relatives and neighbors. The plant is an essential token in the gift economy. People exchange kava at life cycle feasts that mark births, circumcisions, marriages, and deaths. They also exchange kava to resolve neighborhood disputes. The capacity of gifts of kava to reconcile and harmonize relationships reflects people’s expectations of the drug’s peaceable and tranquilizing effects on their bodies.
Kava stands for shared Vanuatu tradition
– kastom –
and that shared tradition bolsters sentiments of identity and unity. In the tradition, kava drinking ceremonies have been significant to sealing alliances, reconciling disputes and fostering relationships. In Vanuatu, contemporary political ceremonies, such as the opening of Parliament, the welcoming of foreign ambassadors, and the celebration of Independence Day, may all include the conspicuous consumption of shells of kava.
Kava helps mask and deal with tensions
which are based on feelings about emerging economic and class differentiation, differentials in access to resources such as land, money, jobs, and knowledge, through education. What kava drinking does it to enhance a feeling of interpersonal universalism when many structurally profound changes are taking place. (Rubinstein 1987:57-58)