“San I ko daon”, a kava story by Soïzic le cornec

Please find below a quick google translation of the article published in French by Soïzic Le Cornec, on Kava in Vanuatu 🇻🇺:

This article is based on some observations and personal impressions from my stay in Vanuatu from March to August 2019 as part of an 11-month trip to New Caledonia and Vanuatu. The purpose of this article is to share my own encounters and impressions around kava, in the few places where I could go; Port Vila on Efate Island, Emau, North Ambrym, Pentecost, Santo center, Aniwa and Tanna.

It would have taken much longer to fully grasp the organization of all these places of life with social norms so far removed from mine. Especially since each island – and even each region in the same island – hosts villages living in different ways and according to different kastom1; what is true somewhere is perhaps false elsewhere. With its 138 vernacular languages ​​for some 280,000 inhabitants2, Vanuatu is a country where it is possible to cross a linguistic area within an hour of walking.

Vanuatu web map
Map of Vanuatu © Casoar

          San i stap ko daon. The sun goes down and signals to Ni-vanuatu3 the end of the day. Already since nakamal4, we hear the rhythmic noise of busnaef5: we are working to cut into small pieces the roots of kava. Men prepare, take shelter, and get married. Finally, the opaque and brown juice is ready and the first sel6 are served. The nakamal plunges into the darkness. A light can just distinguish the kava drinkers who are now whispering to each other. From time to time, the silence is interrupted, it must be said, by gorging throats and affirmed spitting. Kava is effective. Some will tell you that he is talking.

        The kava drink is named after the plant from which it comes. It is the juice extracted from the root that is consumed. Kava comes from Tanna, Santo, Pentecost, Ambae, Paama, Epi, Maewo to name only the main farming islands. It is planted from a branch that takes root and gives a new plant. It is necessary to wait three or four years minimum often more, until ten years sometimes to unearth the root. During all this time, the field must be maintained by brushing it regularly.

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Stages of kava planting, from harvest to planting. © Soizic Cornec

         Kava has an anesthetic and relaxing effect that can be more or less strong depending on the age, variety and quality of the plant. Its taste, slightly peppery, is not known to be nice, we can not help drawing a grimace by emptying its salt. It is consumed at the end of the day in special places, conducive to conversation; the nakamal or the kava bar. Traditionally, he takes part in ceremonies or important meetings of the community. It is a way of sealing an agreement and a union between the drinkers. But today, drinking kava is an almost daily practice for men in Vanuatu.

       The preparation can be done in different ways. In the center of Pentecost, particularly in the village of Level in the heights of Namaram7, the kava is crushed with a section of coral long 25-35 cm taken under water. The coral stone is turned with his hand, in the palm of his second hand where the pieces of roots are arranged. The crushed kava is first mixed with a little water before being filtered several times in a piece of coconut fiber to extract the juice. Tonight when we arrive at Level, the village commemorates the seventy days of mourning for one of them. The young men are responsible for the preparation of the special kava in front of the nakamal, the large community building of the village. They sit on the ground in front of a wooden board next to which are arranged the tools and elements necessary for making. On the board, everything in its place: the humidified kava, pressed kava (makas), the two salt necessary for filtering on the side … Coline, the mother of the family shows me a few days after the sandroing8 of the kava preparation resuming the precise layout of the elements. If this sandroing exists, this well-codified preparation, it seems to me, has a certain antiquity or at least a traditional character. When one of the young men finishes preparing a salt, they come to drink crouched behind him, as a sign of gratitude.

kava pentecost
Salt, corals and dishes for the preparation of kava. North Pentecost © Soizic Le Cornec

        In Tanna, south of Vanuatu, nakamal is an outdoor meeting space, traditionally organized around a nambangga (the Banyan tree). A shelter can be built in the long and multiple roots.9 The kava-related kastom is very strong. Women are excluded from most places on the island. Moreover nakamal are reserved for men, especially at night when eating kava. In the evening, I stay with the women who look after the children and cook. If I wish, a man brings me a salt that I drink outside the nakamal. The way to prepare kava for Tanna may seem surprising to us since the unmarried young men chew the roots before squeezing them. The island has the reputation of making a very strong kava. Once the kava is boiled in the mouths of men, they spit it on a sheet of bourao and then pour it into a piece of tight mesh that serves as a filter. We add a little water and press to recover the kava juice. Aside from this special kava whit mentioned earlier, I have seen everywhere use this fabric (kaliko) to filter. In many places today, people are using manual meat grinders to grind kava. In Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, some small shops have electric choppers that can be used on site for 50 vatu per kilo.10 Commonly called nakamal in Port Vila, the term kava bar seems more suitable for making the distinction between the first where the shared kava takes on a traditional character and the second where people pay to consume. At the kava bar, kava salt is bought 100, 150, 200 vatu according to the desired dose. There are at least several hundred kava bars in Port Vila placed between two houses, on the beach, on a square … which can be buildings of all shapes and sizes possible. They find themselves by a red lantern which only goes out when the kava is finished.

      When I question women in relation to kava, the majority are those who answer never to drink. Some rarely drink on special occasions. However, if kava is a drink traditionally reserved for men, women can now drink it more or less freely depending on the location. Although it is less of a daily practice as it is for men, and that very few are those that we see staying in nakamal, it seems to me that women take a liking to the freedom to consume the kava. In Port Vila, it is not uncommon to see groups of women at the kava bar where Tanna remains a very exclusive example. However, many do not feel comfortable in this very masculine place where the presence of women is still poorly perceived. I remember going once to the kava bar in Port Vila with a friend, who had agreed to accompany me there. After drinking our salt behind the building out of sight, she had left quickly without taking the time to sit and talk. In nakamal, women are often there only to sell, away from the drinkers, small things to eat at 20 vatu (about 15cts) room. Many of them are not allowed by their husbands or just too busy with children and meal preparation. Women sometimes prefer to eat kava at home. Often, they wait for the children to be washed, fed and slept. It is possible to buy a full bottle (a plastik) in the kava bar. It has happened several times in Santo, Emau and Ambrym that women ask me to take out a salt or a plastik nakamal because by my status as foreign, and therefore less strictly subject to the rules related to the kastom and men’s eyes I am invited more easily to drink kava. This apprehension of women, however, depends on the status and personality of each. I think of Tarcisia, a friend of Ambrym who had obtained permission from the village chiefs to prepare and sell her kava at the village kava bar during her husband’s absence, who had gone to work for several months in New Zealand. Rare is this situation but she was every night in the center of the nakamal to sell her kava.

Nakamal, North Pentecost © Soizic Le Cornec

Tarcisia cutting kava roots with his sons. © Soizic Cornec

        The kava market is in full swing today. It should be possible to estimate the number of liters of kava consumed each evening in the kava bar of Port Vila to quantify the popularity of the drink in Vanuatu. Every day, kava is sold at the Namburu market – a neighborhood on the heights of Port Vila – between 1000 and 1500 vatu per kilogram. The farmers send it to Port Vila, taking advantage of the rotations of cargo ships serving the islands. For many, it is a major source of income, which is a vital issue for families who have to contend with tuition, health or equipment costs that often exceed living standards. Pentecost and Santo are fortunate to have particularly fertile lands for growing kava and benefit from a successful export market. Dried kava sells for about 3,300 vatu per kilo. It is exported in the form of powder, to New Caledonia for example or the United States where kava bar are apparently successful in the trendy areas of big cities. Very effective for relaxing and fighting anxiety, it’s no wonder that kava is making its way into the Western megacities.

        Many Ni-vanuatu are proud of their drink whose reputation throughout the Pacific and beyond is well established. Kava is in Vanuatu what wine is to France. I chose to write about kava when I realized that it was the focal point of my immersion in Vanuatu. It was in nakamal that I established friendly relationships, learned to speak Bislama, and talked at length with many different people who gave me valuable testimonials to help me understand the environment in which I was. Kava, whether at the personal level or at the level of the governing authorities, is, I believe, an effective mediator for creating unions, dialogue and making decisions. For this reason, it is a central pillar of ni-vanuatu culture.

Thank you to the many people who welcomed me and shared so much information.

Thank you to Mr. Georges Cumbo for his linguistic advice.

  Soizic The Cornec

Featured image: Kava field, Pentecost center. © Soizic Cornec

1 The kastom is a term widely used in Vanuatu to talk about everything related to tradition and its applications. The language, the songs, the dances, the weaving and all the material productions, the kava … are examples of elements of the kastom.

2 Figures after François A. et al, The languages ​​in Vanuatu: Unity and diversity, Asia-Pacific Linguistics ANU publications, Canberra, 2015.

3 Inhabitants of Vanuatu.

4 Meeting place of the community. It takes different forms depending on the islands. At Pentecost, the nakamal are high and large wooden buildings and natangura (sago palm) leaves for the roof.

5 Term in Bislama (Vanuatu’s lingua franca). Literally “knife for the bush”. In French, cutter or saber de abattis. It is the main tool of Ni-vanuatu for all handicrafts.

6 Term in Bislama. From the English shell, the shell or the nut. Traditionally, kava is served in empty half-coconut. Although plastic bowls are often used today, Ni-vanuatu still talk about kava salt.

7 I mention here this specific place to speak only of a personal experience on the subject. However, there are other places in Vanuatu where kava is crushed with a piece of coral such as north of Pentecost for example.

8 Term in Bislama. From English sand drawing, drawing on sand. Sandroing is a Vanuatu tradition of drawing with a finger in the sand or in the ground a geometric and complex pattern that represents a real object or an idea (animal, plant, object, myth …). These drawings, which are transmitted between generations, are accompanied by stories known to people in the community.

9 The young roots growing from the high branches are progressively passed over the shelter. The roots continue to grow and penetrate the ground in front of the shelter, enclosing it in the roots.

10 Vatu is the currency of Vanuatu. 130 vatu is about equal to one euro.

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