We spend a lot of time talking about kava, or it is tangential to a lot of our stories. It is central to life in Vanuatu and especially on Pentecost where even if you don’t drink kava, you grow kava, you sell kava, you dry kava, you know the kava market and who is opening or closing a nakamal in Vila. Which is all just an excuse for the time Jason spends drinking kava in the nakamal and the time I spent drinking kava in the kitchens (or the church house or behind a truck or in front of the community store…). We’re integrating.
There is a culture of kava. There is how you drink kava in Vila at the kava bars and there is how you drink kava on the islands. Each island has its own kastomand really I think each area of each island is different. So, here’s what I’ve seen.
In Vila, the kava bars have a lot in common with a quieter, outdoor version of a bar in the states. You go to the counter, buy however many shells it is you are planning on buying, everyone grabs theirs and you walk together to the place to drink. Usually, it is a wall or a cliff, someplace where no one will be walking. You say whatever form of cheers you want to say and everyone downs the shell. (Kava is always drunk in one go. Never, ever sip kava.) Everyone puts there shell in the wash bucket (usually a water-filled garbage can) and you go back to your seats and chat until the next round. If you want kava, you drink, if you don’t you sit and chat. Everyone drinks at the pace she or he sets for him or herself until an end is called and everyone goes home to sleep or try to cook dinner in a stoned stupor.
In Central Pentecost, things are done differently. The nakamalis the primary domain of men. Basically, women don’t drink in the nakamal. I’m sort of the exception. It is a bit naughty of me, but sometimes I have work to do or I want to socialize with a certain group of people. It happens. So, kava o’clock starts anywhere from 4:30 to 6 pm on a normal day. That’s where men start to gather at the nakamalwith intent to drink kava. They gather up there all the time but the kava intent has a different feel to it. Eventually, usually a little before sunset, someone comes wandering in with a chunk of root they just pulled out of the ground. It is covered in dirt and looks like you’d be better of running it through a wood chipper. In fairness, it would probably speed up the process.
Everyone drinking contributes kava. It’s a little like buying rounds where even if you didn’t bring some today, you are expected to bring some at some point. Just like buying rounds, I can never figure out if there is an order to who brings the kava or if they just work it out by magic. Some nights, more than one person brings the kava, though that happens on larger drinking nights usually.
Once the kava is in the nakamal, the men work together to prepare it. We’ve written about that process before, so here is a quick recap. The root is cut into smaller, roughly fist-sized chunks and rinsed in a bucket of water. The chunks are cut even smaller into roughly flat pieces about half an inch thick and then mashed in one of three ways. The first and most common in this area is hand ground where each man takes three pieces in his left hand and a phallic piece of coral in his right and grinds one into the other until a pulp comes out. They do this sitting one or two to a board, like a giant cutting board. They will work the kava as a pair all night. The second way is ramming, which produces more kava with less energy but it is said to be not as strong. The kava chunks of put in a tube (usually PVC) and rammed with a heavy chunk of wood. The last method is considered poor form and only used for fundraisers. That is where they take a meat grinder and run the kava through it about three times. Like a said, it is considered cheating and only used for special occasions.
In the first two methods, the kava is “milked” by hand. A small amount of water is added and kneaded into the pulp. The liquid is then strained through coconut tree fibers until it is no longer chunky, or about 3 times through.
This is where the real kastomgets going. Every man or pair of men working the kava finishes a shell at different times. The first shell of the night is the “holy” shell. The honored person’s name is called and he gets up to get the shell. Now, to get to a shell of kava, you can’t walk in front of or between the men working the kava. This can make for some interesting routes to kava, especially for me since I can’t go in the back half of the nakamal. The trick is to plan out your route well before your name is called or know the rotation of names and plan to be conveniently near your kava when your name is called. So, the first person walks to their shell, but he should never reach across the board for the shell. He has to approach the board, and the man who milked the kava, from behind. He kneels down on the man’s right side and takes the shell. From the time he touches the shell to the time he finishes drinking, every other person is still. That means anyone grinding stops grinding, anyone talking stops talking and almost everyone looks at the ground. He places the shell back in the holder or he gets up and washes his shell and everyone starts moving again.
The first shell goes to the highest ranked person in the room. Guests outrank everyone. If there are a few guests, it goes to the oldest male. After that it follows age and rank. Old men often don’t grind at all, they did their time grinding as young men and now it is the other young men’s turn to grind. The chiefs may or may not join in the grinding, it depends on the chief and on the night. So, for instance, my dad and brother came to visit me. My dad got the first shell, my bro go the second shell, the oldfala and chiefs got the next few and Jason and I drank down the line. We are no longer guests and I am proud of that.
To wash your shell, you can’t pass in front of people working kava, which usually means another circuitous route through the nakamalto wash it and back again to put it in the holder. This doesn’t apply to the man working kava, he can go straight through to wash the shell.
You go back to a nice, dark corner of the nakamaland continue whatever conversation you left in the middle of. Don’t worry, it isn’t rude to leave your conversation mid-thought to go drink kava. When your name is called, you go. That is true all night. There is no saying, “No, I’ve had enough. I’ll just sit and chat.” If you are in the nakamalyou are drinking. When your name is called, you get up and drink.
Kava should always be drunk near the person who milked it for you. The first few shells should happen kneeling next to them, though after that it is kind of ok to stand up. I was recently informed that it is never ok to stand up, but I’ve seen it done. Some people like to take their kava outside, but that is poor form around here if done by anyone but a chief. We drink inside like good little peons.
The only way to limit your kava consumption while continuing to drink and thus socialize in the nakamalis to pour half back. It is acceptable to pour part of the shell back into the strained kava after you’ve drunk one whole one. I use this tactic a lot. I like the socialization, but I find my belly doesn’t much like kava and to stay in the nakamal, you have to drink.
When you “hear the kava’s song,” you tell the person milking your kava that you are done for the evening and escape to the house. No one will put pressure on you to stay and everyone agrees that when you are done, you are done.
The nakamal is an odd combination of really great atmosphere and really bizarre peer pressure. It is so pleasant to sit and make your and your friends’ drinks while chatting with everyone. On the other hand, you can’t be there unless you are drinking. I think both of those have to do with the high rate of kava use around here. We all want to be social creatures, but that means drinking a lot of kava.