Vanuatu and Kava

Rounding out the Melanesian region of Oceania is the island nation of Vanuatu.  Vanuatu is one of the most interesting, diverse and mysterious of all the Melanesian archipelagos in relation to culture and their use of Kava-as we shall see below.

Vanuatu Itself

The island nation of Vanuatu, or officially the Republic of Vanuatu, is an archipelago located approximately 1,100 miles to the east of Northern Australia.  Nestled between their Melanesian cousins in the Solomon Islands to the north and New Caledonia to the south, Vanuatu covers approximately 5,000 square miles.  The island chain, of which there are 82 individual islands, is home to 221,000 inhabitants per the nations own 2007 census stats.  This breaks down to about 40 people per square mile or half as densely populated as the U.S.A.

Vanuatu and History

Vanuatu is a newbie as far as statehood is concerned, achieving their independence less than thirty years ago.  Prior to self-rule, Vanuatu was classified as a British-French Condominium.  Not a luxury apartment in the south pacific; under this definition of condominium both the British and French ruled the country together.  But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves…

Although archeological evidence is sparse, it appears the first humans arrived on the shores of Vanuatu approximately 4,000 years ago.  These were the Lapitas, and they are the driving force behind the populating of the entire Melanesian region.  As in other regions, the Lapitas brought their cultural contributions of the outrigger canoe, domesticated animals (pigs and dogs), fishing techniques, and pottery.

The Lapita people were left pretty much to themselves (although Polynesian settlers arrived at some point and influenced Vanuatu culture, it is unclear in the archeological record as to when they arrived) until first European contact in 1606.  At this time the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queiros arrived under the flag of the Spain.  At landfall, he felt he had discovered a new southern continent.  To show his relief and gratitude, he named the island Espiritu Santo (or Holy Spirit in Spanish).  This is the largest island in the chain, and still goes by the name given by Queiros.

After Queiros departure the islands were not visited again by European explorers for over 150 years.  Finally, in 1768, European boats appeared off the shores of Vanuatu.  This time the boats carried the French, lead by Louis Antoine de Bougainville.  They were followed in no short order (less than 5 years later) by the arrival of Captain Cook.  Bougainville and Cook, as well as Queiros 150 years earlier, claimed control of the islands for their respective countries (France, England, and Spain).  All these European explorers left their mark on the culture of Vanuatu-some more than other (as in France and Britain).  These clashing forces have left Vanuatu culturally divided to this very day.

For the next 150 years these different cultures, all claiming ownership of the islands, wreaked havoc on the local identify.  There were uprisings of “locals” (Lapita and Polynesian descendants) against their European “rulers” in the 1830’s and 1860’s.  Finally in 1906, with Spain bowing out of the fight, France and Britain decided on terms to co-rule the islands.  Although bringing some stability to the region, this too was short lived.

During World War II the United States arrived and changed how the then residents of the French-British Condominium viewed themselves.  Seeing the American’s relatively relaxed posture and apparent wealth, the people of Vanuatu began thinking of freedom.  The arrival of American forces lead to one of the strangest cultural shifts in Vanuatu’s history, the formation John Frum’s cargo cult.

Vanuatu and Culture

Vanuatu culture varies regionally.  In the northern areas, there are two variations of a social and political society where men and women can purchase positions of status. Wealth, in the form of mats and pigs – particularly pigs with rounded tusks – is not defined so much by how much an individual owns, but by demonstrating how much he can give away. Grade taking ceremonies, where large numbers of pigs are ritually killed and gifts given to members of an extended family are elaborate affairs. Although the status of a person may be publicly displayed with certain body decorations and a respect for their status, there is no real authority attached.

In the central areas, Polynesian type systems have predominated. Here, a hereditary chief is a powerful authority figure who reigns over an entire class system.  This system is complete with nobles and commoners.

In the southern islands, particularly Tanner, titles are bestowed on certain men making them chiefs. This status can give those chiefs rights over land and even possessions of entire social groups. Women hold a very low status whereas in places like Ambae and the Shepherds, women can achieve the rank of Chief.

The situation is complicated even further by the introduction of more recent religious movements such as John Frum’s cargo cult.  Called a cargo cult due to their religious ceremonies attempt to being material wealth, John Frum’s cargo cult started sometime after 330,000 American troops arrived on the islands during the Pacific Campaign.  John Frum’s believers left modern Vanuatu culture and returned to traditional subsistence living in remote villages.  Before this exodus believers liquidated all assets and held enormous celebratory gatherings.

Returning to traditional living practices, John Frum followers believe John Frum will return (often depicted as an African-American soldier) one day and bestow upon his followers all types of material wealth.  His return would coincide with the exodus of all white settlers.  For him to return, his followers believe they must reject all things European (hence the wholesale unloading of all material wealth) and return to the jungle.

Today John Frum is not only a religion but a political party with members in the Vanuatu Parliament.

Despite all these cultural differences, throughout all the islands one thing remains constant-life is a constant cycle of ritual events. And these ritualistic events often involve kava.

Vanuatu and Kava

Kava and Vanuatu have a long history together.  Presently there is an ongoing ethnobotanical debate to whether or not Vanuatu is actually the homeland of kava.  With 80 of the 118 species of kava growing here, kava use abounds. With both historical and contemporary ceremonial usage, kava is also seen as a cash crop, a means to convey wealth, and a prolific elixir served in kava bars island wide.

In some regions kava is only consumed by men.  This is especially true in the southern regions.  Their method of preparation is ceremonial.  Held only by men and at the end of the day, first the root is chewed and then spat into a bowl. This is done by all the men of the village while in their “men’s club” hut.  This mush is then strained and the liquid drank-shared again by all involved.  It is after this that the men discuss the events of the day and plans for the next.

Kava has been used medicinally for generations.  Kava root is eaten to treat constipation, while its juices are mixed with water to treat conjunctivitis by washing the eyes.  Leaves are strained, the liquid from this used to treat ear aches and a plaster of heated and pounded kava leaves are placed on the stomach to relieve an upset stomach.  Even the bark of this sacred plant is used to help in treating fevers and coughs.

Whatever the use, the people of Vanuatu have embraced kava.  If this is kava’s point of origin, we thank them.  If not-just keep up the good work.

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