Kava may sit in colorful bottles on supermarket shelves these days, but did you know that kava root has a long and rich history of being given by visitors to the chief, as a gift upon entering a South Pacific village?
As you may be scrambling around the stores in the next few days wondering what gifts to buy for last-minute Christmas presents, it seems like a good time to look a bit closer at this tradition of using kava as a gift.
The tradition of presenting kava as a gift
Virtually all cultures practice giving – in Christianity the birth of Christ was celebrated by the Three Wise Men bearing their famous gifts and that is why Christmas gifts are given today.
The tradition of visitors bearing gifts represents many things. In days gone by it was seen as a non-threatening message of arriving at a place in peace; it was also a way to show respect for the head of the village and his people; in days before modern transport, foodstuffs as gifts were also a welcome addition to the village larders, which often had limited local produce – traveling between islands or even between nations by boat was the only way to transport goods.
In Fiji and the South Pacific as a whole, kava made the ideal gift – plentiful, valued and always well received.
Respecting the village
Presenting kava as a gift in the old days meant buying a section of the root from the local market and having it wrapped in green leaves. Nowadays it will be wrapped in newspaper or just tied into a cone-shaped bundle before being presented to the head.
There is a respectful procedure for visitors to follow for arriving in a Fijian or other South Pacific island village.
Women should dress modestly with a sulu (sarong) and men should also dress appropriately and remove their hats.
If you visit a village, your guide will ask for permission to enter, especially if you are doing anything apart from the normal sightseeing, such as studying, surveying or competing in a competition.
Then you will be taken to present the gift of kava to the village head – this may be in the longhouse of the village, which is the communal centre. The eldest man should enter first followed by the rest of the men and then the women; all guests should be seated and remain so during the ceremony that follows.
Hello chief – here’s your kava!
The eldest man in the guest group presents the gift of kava and the chief may inspect its quality – though of course it will always be accepted!
Once accepted, the kava will be taken to be prepared, by being mashed up and then having cold water poured through the pulp to create a muddy-brown colored drink, contained in a large kava bowl that will also be present in front of where the chief is sitting.
The kava may be tested for taste before being served and then the guest of honour (which will probably be you if you‘ve presented the kava) will be asked to drink first.
So the gift ceremony quickly becomes a kava drinking ceremony. Notice how Fijians don’t hang around once the gift of kava has been presented! They prepare it and get straight into drinking it! That’s the tradition of kava!