One of four main islands in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) in the South Pacific Ocean, Pohnpei is a lush mountainous island that has been home to human beings for thousands of years. Although its name was originally Anglicized as “Ponape”, the title was changed to Pohnpei as a more accurate reading of the indigenous name for the island, which roughly means “upon a stone altar”. Pohnpei has also been one of the epicenters of kava culture in the South Pacific, a feature that now helps Pohnpei attract interested visitors from all over the world.
Pohnpei is located in the eastern end of the Caroline island chain, about midway between Manila, in the Philippines, and Oahu in the Hawaiian archipelago. It is mountainous, with the highest peak rising to a height of 2,695 feet. In the cloud forest interior, Pohnpei is home to a diverse assortment of plant and animal life, while the rocky coasts are surrounded by a lattice of smaller islands, one of which is home to Pohnpei’s international airport. According to Pohnpei’s official tourism website, it has the most developed infrastructure of any island in the FSM; Pohnpei encourages foreign tourism, and residents are generally very welcoming of visitors.
Tourism advertisements for Pohnpei often mention its kava culture on the first page. Like other islands in the South Pacific such as Fiji and Vanuatu, Pohnpei has robust and interesting cultural traditions surrounding the harvesting, preparation and consumption of kava kava. Called sakau in Pohnpei’s native language, in the traditional method of preparation a small group of helpers (usually men) will harvest the mature kava root several hours before a ceremony or social gathering is to begin. Then “the root is pounded and mixed with water to form an earthy-tasting drink that inspires both myth and magic” –Pohnpei Visitor’s Center.
The link between kava and myth is no idle comparison: on Pohnpei, the origins of kava, or sakau, are deeply rooted in indigenous myth. The story goes that long ago on Pohnpei there lived two brothers who were either ghosts or demigods. These mythic figures first created the kava plant out of pieces of their own skin, which they seeded on Pohnpei and islands nearby. Perhaps because it springs from such esteemed roots, on Pohnpei kava is harvested, prepared and consumed according to specific cultural protocols that encourage its respectful use. In the traditional process, a group of helpers decide which kava plant is ready to be dug up, and then work in teams to carefully excavate the plant without harming the roots. The men then trim the foliage away from the kava plant and pound the roots into a fibrous pulp. Bark from the hibiscus tree is usually employed to strain the damp kava root liquid into a serving bowl.
On Pohnpei (as on other Micronesian islands), kava is consumed socially, and there are certain rules of etiquette that regulate which attendees receive the first crucial bowls. Traditionally, the first and fourth bowl of kava goes to the guest of highest title or social standing, usually the king or chieftain in ancient times. The second bowl would be offered to the guest or leader of next highest status, and the third traditionally went to the queen. Finally the fifth bowl of kava would be served to whoever prepared the brew that evening. After these formalities of serving are attended to, guests may partake of kava in any order they choose.
Kava has become more commercialized on Pohnpei in recent years: to address the influx of new tourists, many sakau bars have sprung up on the island, and some Pohnpei kava farmers have made deals with U.S. vendors to sell their crops Stateside. However, it’s still possible for visitors to Pohnpei to see kava being prepared traditionally and even to participate in a kava ceremony if they wish. However, many Pohnpei residents still consider kava drinking to be ceremonial rather than recreational, a brew that should be served with the utmost respect for the plant and those who partake of it.
Since its inception, Pohnpei’s indigenous people have used kava to cement social bonds and form new ones. Kava is a staple beverage at ceremonies like weddings, funerals and anniversaries, and has been traditionally been employed to seal agreements, ask for or grant forgiveness, and to welcome visitors. So if you go to Pohnpei, try a bowl of kava and remember— they’re happy to have you there!