Travel Writers: Fijian Initiation Rites

Travel writer: Wendy Hughes

Location: Fiji, Pacific Islands, South Pacific

Something looked strange about the local man sitting under the tree. His hat was askew on his head and his eyes were glazed over. Glancing anxiously at him, I moved to the right and gave both the man and the tree a wide berth.

I had been in Fiji just a couple of hours and, up until then, my evening walk along the beach had been marked by the solitude, the stars and the swishing of waves at my feet. Everything I had ever dreamt about these paradise islands was proving to be true. But now the tranquil ambiance had been slightly spoiled for me, and I hurried back to my guesthouse.

When I got there I voiced my concerns about the man to Roberta, my matronly Fijian host who seemed to spend her life in the kitchen baking banana cakes for her guests. “That’ll be Willy,” she laughed, “He’s probably been up at Manasa’s place drinking kava with the other men. It’s perfectly harmless, so don’t worry. You should try some!”

So the next morning I set out to investigate.

Kava is an age-old drink that has been used for centuries by the Fijians. A member of the black pepper family, it has proven medicinal benefits and helps beat the blues and bring on a happy, tranquil state. Historically, it was only used ceremonially by chiefs and priests, but today it is an extremely important part of daily life and is used as a social drink, to welcome guests, for storytelling sessions, or just for passing the time away. In fact, a recent Fijian newspaper article reported that the average kava drinker gets through 100,000 cups in a lifetime!

I ventured out to Nadi Market to find out more about this ancient ritual. On arrival I was confronted by an incredible mixture of sights, smells and sounds: spice-strewn alleys were filled with Indo-Fijian women in their colourful saris and there were rows of stalls with noisy market traders selling fresh local fruits and vegetables. But what astounded me was the whole section of the market devoted to selling kava. Some stalls were piled high with kava roots, some sold small sachets of the powder, while one stall was serving the drink itself to a long line of rather groggy, yet eager, looking locals.

I had to try this stuff!

That evening, back up at the guesthouse, Roberta told me that she was taking some time away from her kitchen to visit her friend Manasa in the local village, and she invited me to come along with her.

We arrived at Manasa’s house to find it packed full of a bewildering array of faces, all smiling and chattering – including Willy from the beach, whose huge grin made him look a lot more friendly this time (although his hat was still crooked). In the centre of the room was a large wooden bowl, known as a tanoa, which contained the ubiquitous drink I had become so fascinated by.

I felt excited, but slightly apprehensive as I sat down and watched as Manasa poured some kava from the wooden bowl into a coconut shell, which he passed ceremoniously to me. There are certain protocols to be followed when you’re drinking kava – you must sit cross-legged facing the tanoa, clap your hands to accept the drink, and then down it in one. But the drink looked exactly like muddy water, and its flavour was unbelievably foul. So I clapped, then held my breath as I quickly gulped down the contents of the coconut shell and nervously smiled at the people surrounding me, trying to look polite rather than retch.

The rest of the evening passed by in a blur of noisy, friendly laughter and constant bowls of kava. A couple of hours and several coconut shells later, the taste hadn’t grown on me, and it had given me numb lips, a numb tongue and slightly floppy limbs, but I felt relaxed, sociable, peaceful and happy.

It’s said that sharing a kava bowl allows friendships to be cemented. I felt honoured that Roberta had chosen to introduce me to her friends and neighbours, and honoured that they had chosen to share their traditions with me. I still didn’t like kava, but hey, what’s a bit of muddy water between a group of new-found friends?

Text © Wendy Hughes 2005, All Rights Reserved.
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