Fiji Culture and Kava


Like many plants with medicinal uses, there are specific generalizations that can be made about the things that the plant can do without pointing out specifically what kind of sickness it treats. In the case of Kava, it is marketed usually as a general-purpose herbal medicine against stress, insomnia, and even various anxiety disorders. There are many other uses of the plant in the world as well as in the constrained geographic location of Fiji. However, we will be undertaking a discussion specifically concerning the role of Kava in Fiji.

Although medicine has indeed played a large role in the popularity of Kava, we should not forget that there is also a specific historical and religious significance surrounding it. Other than its associations in Fiji, Kava is also popularly used in Tonga; as a drink, it has been called kalapu by the locals. Drunk nightly, it has continued as a tradition over the years that is usually considered a replacement for more popular cultural symbols, such as beer and milk, in cultures that have modernized with respect to consumer goods and products. In fact, we would see in Tonga that only men are allowed to drink Kava, although according to convention it is the women who serve it. A cultural practice is that the woman who serves it is an unmarried young woman, and thus serving kava is also symbolized in the culture as a process of courting. Historians have pointed out that Tongan traditional culture is decreasing over the years, and there are only a few locations in the area which still practice such a courting ritual because of the fast development of communication technology in the location (McDonald, 1994).

In Fiji, kava’s cultural significance is deeply rooted in the history of the location. For example, although it is usually used today in social gatherings as a form of recreation and convention, traditionally, the drink was only serve to higher-ranking chiefs and elders of the tribes in order to signify the welcoming of honored guests. And because it was difficult for tribes to travel from one location to the other in Fiji, Kava was used scarcely and it gained an association of specialness among the citizens of Fiji. Also, at other points in the history of Fiji, the Kava drink was used either in preparation for an important religious event or at the completion of that event. According to the literature, this was done in order to validate such events to the eyes of the local gods so that they might bless marriage status, births, and deaths.

Another interesting point in the culture of Fiji and its relationship to the plant Kava is its continued use in divination ceremonies in Fiji. Although it has not been historically recorded by researchers how this has come to be so, much like tea leaves in other Western countries, the use of Kava for divination is a widespread practice among midwives and known diviners as well as lay people. However, an interesting point about this practice is that the divination ceremonies involving Kava are not intended to predict the future per se. The Fijian kind of divination is usually focused on divining whether or not an unborn child will be a male. Also, an interesting cultural practice associated with Kava in Fiji is that it is used in the naming of children who are one year old. Unlike the common practice in Western civilization where a child is named immediately after birth, in Fiji, — or at least in some locations — it is done after one year (Brison, 2001).

Some cultures in isolated locations of Fiji even measure one year internally from the time of conception, much like in East Asian countries such as Korea. The drink made from the Kava root is also used as religious libation that is bored into the ground instead of being drunk. The study of libations and their cultural significance in itself could point towards important cross-cultural similarities. Again, we reiterate the importance of context: as would be observed by the comparative historian, libations are not restricted only to Fiji, or even only to islands in the Pacific, but could be seen in nations as far away as Norway, Japan, and even in North American practice. Of course, this is a topic for other research, but it is at least interesting to point it out at this time.

We have already explained and connected the various uses of Kava in social gatherings, conventions, and culture. However, as we have hinted earlier, scientists have shown that Kava also has medicinal uses, and we will now further explore the role of Kava as a medicine in Fiji.

As was introduced earlier, we explained that scientists have verified specific physical responses that result from the use of Kava. One is the plant’s ability to calm the nerves and unblock neural pathways along the spinal column. Eventually this causes relaxation and sleep, which are natural methods for reducing and avoiding stress. There are in fact many plants all over the world which have the capability of clearing out neural pathways, and Kava is not the only one that belongs to this category. According to the literature, the reason Kava was used for such purposes in Fiji and associated areas is because it already possessed the most cultural significance in the South Pacific. We will discuss the various theories on why Fiji and Kava have been bound so closely together, but we should at this point consider significance of the large growth rate of Kava in the area: Kava proliferates widely in the temperate climates of the Pacific Islands, and relatively easy to cultivate using simple horticultural methods.

Further medicinal use of Kava includes to unclog the urinary tract, a property that has also been associated with plants that have been used to relieve stress because of the correlation of clogged urinary tracts with stress. Weight loss has also been associated with the ingestion of Kava, but it is again related to stress reduction and mental clarity, which is an intrinsic measure for many diet programs in today’s modern world.

However, there are still many medicinal uses of Kava in Fiji which have intrigued scientists because they seem to be more effective than if they were simply a result of the placebo effect observed in medicine. For example, biologists have agreed that there is no probable way that Kava could cure or relieve asthma and back problems, but it is still attested by Fiji Kava users to be effective for that purpose. Furthermore, Kava has been claimed by the locals to be an effective cure for syphilis and gonorrhea, although there have not been any medical studies on the effectiveness of Kava for treating syphilis or gonorrhea.

Although maladies such as headaches, weakness, frequent infections, and certain pains could stem from stress and thus be ameliorated by Kava’s verified stress-reducing properties, it is still a baffling situation that Kava appears able to cure—or at least prevent—the various other more complicated ailments suffered by Fijians. According to the literature, a possible methodology for further study could be to compare two cultures—Fiji and that of another location—regarding the efficiency and effectiveness of Kava for curing such ailments (Singh, 2002).

At least from the medical perspective, there is another common practice in Fiji which has an anaologue in the practices of countries elsewhere in the world. This is the practice of grinding Kava root to powder and fumigating it with the leaves in order to treat general illness. According to history and other associations, this is a common practice in various tribes in areas all over the world using plants with religious significance, and Fiji is no exception.

However, we should remember that there are also mythological factors that must be considered when explaining why the Kava root plays such a significant role in the medicinal coventions and applications of Fiji. Much of the literature that has been used in research was taken not from official documentation but from various oral traditions and conventions that have been sourced from various geographic locations of Fiji.

There is much folklore surrounding Kava, but perhaps the most popular tale is a legend of how a couple killed their leprous daughter to feed the chief during a time of starvation. However, instead of eating the body, the chief instructs the parents to bury it and bring back the plant that has grown from the corpse. Weeks pass and the plant grows on the top of the daughter’s head. From this story, in which Kava grows from the dead body of a sacrificial victim, a common theme emerges: that of Kava as a sacrificial drink; thus, in partaking of Kava, the drinker participates in a symbolic ritual of transformation, renewal and rebirth.

It is also interesting to trace the mythological and symbolic history of Kava, and see how it has evolved through the ages and taken on various social meanings such as good health, community, welcome, and divination.
A specific instance is the attitude toward Kava expressed by fundamentalist Christian sects, which arrived in the South Pacific from the West and labeled Kava as a demonic drink—as was the usual practice of many Christian colonialists at that time. Like other cultures in which various hallucinogens have been banned by the Church as a way for the daemon to enter the mind, so also was Kava banned. However, after alcohol became the prevailing drink among the residents of Fiji, this convention was changed: Kava was encouraged by mainstream Christian denominations because it was a good substitute against the greater danger of consuming alcohol.

The last point of view we shall undertake before retiring is the historical context of the Pacific Islands in the early 18th century, in which Kava played a central role in religious and social life. Notable people who were served Kava in the South Pacific included Captain Cook as early as 1768. It has even been noted that this is the first instance where a Western explorer encountered children consuming plants for ceremonial purposes. Also, as historians and comparative sociologists have pointed out, the ceremonial use of Kava is perhaps the last cultural practice that connects the various islands of the Pacific to each other.

Especially Fiji, which has seen its culture develop in the shadow of the plant, the sociological role of Kava has been described as similar to that of native American tribal practices of chewing of coca leaves, and the use of opium in the Middle East and Asia — other naturally occurring substances used by distant cultures that at first glance are very different from each other, but have the same cultural perspectives in their society regarding the use of herbs.

Because of the growing movement of ethnic preservation and social solidarity, the use of Kava is prevailing again, not only in popular culture but also in the revival of traditional practices. As we have observed from the literature we have gathered, Kava has deep symbolic, health, and metaphorical meanings for Fiji and surrounding locations. There are many other studies which could be derived from this research: a cross-cultural comparison of herbs and other natural resources occurring in various geographical regions could yield significant insight as to how human beings have interacted with the resources they found around them in their environment, both in the present and in the past. We cannot ignore that there are scientifically proven health benefits that Kava can provide and for which it is being used in Fiji. However, there are many other contextual frameworks that also attest the value of Kava in Fiji; literature on the topic is varied and provides insights into how the culture of Fiji operates on the foundations of Kava.

– by K. Edley (References available upon request)


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