Kava, take 2
The story of Kava changes on every island, as does the preparation and the ritual. The story of kava on Pentecost goes something like this:
A man’s wife died. He was so sad he couldn’t sleep which meant he was too tired to go to the garden and work. His wife’s ghost came to him and said, “You are too sad. You miss me too much. Next time you go to the garden, watch Rat, he’ll show you how to become good again.”
The next day, the man went to the garden. He waited for evening when Rat came out. He watched as Rat came to the edge of the garden and searched around. When rat found the plant he was looking for, he dug at the roots. He gnawed the roots and spit the dry bits out, like sugar cane. Then, he curled up and slept.
The man shook Rat. Rat wouldn’t wake up. The man watched all night and Rat slept deeply. In the morning, rat woke up.
The next night, the man dug up the roots of the kava plant and chewed them. He slept deeply that night and was no longer missed his wife.
So, Bislama isn’t a very easy language to tell stories in. You have to talk circles around everything. That is the custom legend, as well as I could catch it in Bislama and then translate it into English.
Now, the kava process here on Pentecost. First you go dig a stumpa of kava. You hack off the roots and shove the stems back into the ground. They’ll grow, don’t worry. You take the roots and carry them to the nakamal. You sit outside the nakamal and peel the kava, usual using a bushknife. You chop off all the little stringy roots and put them aside to be washed. Then you chop the kava into small pieces, about 2 inches square. Then you wash everything and go inside the nakamal.
On Efate, they used a meat grinder to grind the kava. Here, that is considered low-brow and lazy. Instead, they use a piece of coral. In your left hand, you put three or four pieces of kava root, in your right hand you take a long piece of coral that looks rather phallic. The coral rests against the kava and then you make a grinding gesture, sort of like ringing out a shirt or twisting the top off a jar. Eventually, you have a pile of kava that has about the same consistency as bread dough and is about as large as two fists. Every few minutes, you have to replace the kava in your hand to avoid grinding your hand into the kava. The gaps are plugged with all the small, stringy roots.
So, once you have the pile of kava-dough, you start mixing in water, measured out in the coconut shell you plan on drinking it from. When it turns sloppy but not yet runny, Its ready to start straining. The more you strain it, the stronger it gets. The traditional strainer is a piece of coconut fabric. Young coconuts are covered by this fiber that I can only describe as fabric, almost like burlap in texture. On the first straining, you just strain it through a single fold of the fabric. On the second straining, you fold the fabric in half and then twist it into a funnel. That goes directly into the coconut shell for drinking. If you want to make it stronger, you strain it again and again and again, ad infinitum.
The first shell is…sacred isn’t the right word but it’ll have to do. That shell goes first to the guest, if there aren’t any guests it goes to whoever is being honored that night. If there is a custom something, it goes to the person making it. If there is a chief it goes to them. But, guests trump all and the guest will always get the first shell. While the person takes the first shell, everyone stops working and sits quietly. After that, it doesn’t matter who is drinking, there is no rule of silence. There is a rotation to who drinks when and who grinds when, but I haven’t gotten that figured out yet.