Working with civil society and Fiji's kava culture

Working with civil society and Fiji's kava culture

Chris Morris, head of ADB’s NGO and Civil Society Center, during the kava drinking ceremony in Fiji.

By Suzanne Nazal

Civil society participation becomes meaningful only when one learns to understand the local context, and appreciate the community’s inherent capacity to address issues that affect them.

Civil society participation becomes meaningful only when one learns to understand the local context and appreciate the community’s inherent capacity to address issues that affect them.

I witnessed this during my last mission to Fiji, where I learned how the culture of kava drinking opens opportunities for dialogue and cooperation in a country with a rich history of volunteerism, and where traditional values play an important role in the development of civil society. Traditional family units, large extended families and clans working together for the advancement of their village can be seen as early forms of civil society organizations in Fiji. As an outsider, sharing a cup or two of kava with local villagers can help develop mutual trust, an important element in forming constructive partnerships.

We took part in a traditional welcome ceremony by local leaders in Wailotua, a small village in Tailevu province on northern Viti Levu, the country’s main island. Residents there are benefiting from an ADB-supported road upgrading project that has made social services more accessible, and opened up opportunities for trade and tourism for communities along its route.

To blend in, we wore traditional sarong outfits and prepared to drink kava, Fiji’s national drink, which comes from the root of the yaqona (piper methysticum) plant.

Sitting in a circle with the locals on the wooden floor of the community hall, we observed the village headman leading the ceremony and holding the dried root beverage in a cloth sack which he soaked again and again with water in a large wooden bowl. After multiple straining, the water turned dark brown and was ready to be drunk.

A cup of kava is served first to the most senior person among the group of visitors, and then offered to each one in the circle using a communal cup made from a coconut shell. Before you downed the cup, you must clap once and yell “bula!”, and then clap three more times. The literal meaning of “bula” is "life," and when used as a greeting it implies good wishes for continued good health. I did not realize that there would be more than one round, and I ended up drinking two cups, each in one shot.

Kava is an acquired taste, not necessarily unpleasant. The root has an “earthy” flavor with a tinge of bitterness. It has anesthetic and sedative effects that can make you feel numb, and drinking a large amount will make you feel relaxed and sleepy. Most Fijians drink kava on a daily basis, and people attribute the relaxed demeanor of the islanders to this drink.

Kava is also a symbol of bringing people together. Indigenous Fijian society is a community of networks, an interconnected web of family units (tokatoka), clans (mataqali), and tribes (yavusa) with strong ties to their land (vanua). The ways in which people interact with each other is based upon how they are related to each other. Traditional rituals like drinking kava help connect different Fijian groups.

It is no secret that kava has powerful calming properties. Excessive consumption, in fact, can make the limbs tired, the muscles unresponsive, and you often fall asleep. But taking part in a kava ceremony—and the sense of kinship that goes with it—is far more powerful than the drink itself. The secret of kava lies not on its medicinal benefits, but on how it can foster cooperation and community cohesion in a traditional society like Fiji’s.