Fiji's Kava Culture

According to legend, the word “yaqona” (pronounced yang-GO-na) was derived from the Fijian god Degei, whose name means “from heaven to the soil and through the Earth.” He had three sons, all of whom he had given two sacred crops, vuga (a type of tree) and yaqona, so that they could receive wisdom from them. In turn, the sons gave them to their other people, and the legend states that to this day, the crops grow wherever Fijian descendents reside.

Yaqona or kava drink

kavaToday, yaqona (or kava) drinking is still a traditional and regular part of Fijian life and culture. This drink is made from the pulverized root of Piper methysticum, which is a plant from the pepper family. Those who have never tried the drink may have to adjust to the taste, though it is not unpleasant, either. It is tingly and numbing on the tongue and is very relaxing, though local healers have also used it to cure diseases and conditions ranging from tooth decay to gonorrhea to respiratory illnesses.

Side effects of kava

However, excessive yaqona drinking can cause negative side effects, including stomach pains, loss of appetite, lethargy, restlessness, blood shot eyes and scaling of the skin, which is common among heavy yaqona drinkers in Fiji, who also refer to this condition as kanikani. In studies, kava has also been associated with some cases of liver toxicity, so the kava export business in Hawaii and other major places where it has been grown and exported had collapsed by the end of 2002. Now the selling of all kava products is banned in North America, Europe and Asia.

The beverage, which contains no alcohol, brings a calming effect to the drinker, but it is not a depressant. Fijians drink it, particularly on weekends, for socializing as well as for settling arguments and making peace, casting magical spells, making business deals and social contracts, laying the foundations of homes, welcoming newcomers and visitors, sending village members on journeys and when christening boats.

Kava is also used as a traditional gift that guests will give to their hosts or other high-ranking visitors during official ceremonies as a gesture of respect. During this event, people sit on the floor, surrounding a large wooden bowl filled with the yaqona beverage and drink the muddy brown-colored liquid from half of a coconut shell. Singing and instrument-playing, particularly playing songs on guitars, can also be involved.

In Fijian villages, yaqona drinking is mostly done by men, but women will gather in the kitchen every now and then to drink amongst themselves. On some occasions, though, older women may join the normally all-male group. They will usually offer a female visitor a bowl of the drink with no problem, though unless she is of a higher rank, the men are generally given a bowl first. However, in some Fijian cities, both men and women can take bowls and drink together.

Fiji kava plant

The kava plant, which is used to make the drink, is cultivated and is a booming business in Fiji, though there are also controversies surrounding yaqona drinking. Opponents to this activity state that it may take up the time that villagers could be spending doing more productive activities, such as harvesting and fishing.

On the other side of the coin, many more Fijians believe that yaqona drinking is the super glue that binds its people and society together, as people can take part in this very social event and can chat and feel acceptance amongst complete strangers, the same way one would feel with close friends and family. Since the time the first Europeans arrived in Fiji, yaqona drinking was and still is a very important Fijian tradition that brings people together.