4-8 Kava Kastom

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.

1-19 How to make a kava shell

Half a coconut shell, ready to be cleaned up.

 We’ve mentioned a few times that parts of the coconut plant are used for almost everything. Other than coconut milk curry, my favorite use is the shell as a drinking vessel. Here, it’s just kava that is drunk out of the shells. I intend to bring a number back and drink other things out of them as well. Of course, I will also have to keep a couple for the powdered kava I’ll be drinking when I get nostalgic.

Scraping the fuzz off the outside of the shell.
Still too rough to drink out of.

In order to get the shell ready to drink out of, first it must be husked as previously described. After that we break the shell open by whacking it with the dull side of our bush knife. Then we scratch the meat out (which means we get to have something with coconut milk, yum!) with a special tool (one of the only specialized tools in this country.) We scratch out most of the meat to milk and then continue scratching the last scraps onto the ground (they contain more shell than meat.)

Sandpaper that sucker down.
Next, we have to thoroughly clean the fuzz off the outside. This starts with either a bush knife or a piece of glass.
Having access to sandpaper, we then use that to get it really smooth and ready to drink out of.
All ready for drinking!
We don’t seem to get them filed/sanded down quite as much as they do but they should be quite serviceable.

1-8 On being a Woman in Vanuatu

The gender divide here dwarfs the Grand Canyon.

Women do all the day-to-day cooking, women do all the laundry, all the dishes and all the cleaning in the house. Women discipline children and reward them. Women wake them up in the morning and put them to sleep at night, comfort them when they cry and play with them. Women weave matts and baskets. Women work in the garden. Women carry water and store water for when the taps run dry. Women look after the chickens and feed the pigs. Women sell extra food at the markets.

Men go to the garden, where they grow kava as well as vegetables. Men build things, when there is something to build. Men slaughter animals for special occasions and cook the meat, for special occasions. Men make kava. Men drink kava.

Women do not build. Women do not go in the nakamal. Women do not wear pants. Women do not leave the house area without their husbands’ permission. Women do not walk around alone. Women do not take part in courts or “community” decisions. Women do not have the right to ask for help from a man who is not their husband.

Men do not raise children.

Men can hit their wives, if she deserves it. Deserves it means: not making food on time, not being at the house when he expects her to be, cheating, talking about family planning or going to the Aid Post for a condom.

Men can cheat on their wives. In fact, it is almost expected. The self-reported rate of men with multiple, concurrent partners is 33%. The women self-report at 11%.

This divide is visible even in children as young as three or four. Girls are told to go help with the wash or the cooking. Boys roam the village playing games all day. By the time they are ten, the boys are wandering around, eating whatever fruit is in season and swimming in the ocean while the girls clean their brothers’ clothes, cook their meals and general keep house.

Community life revolves around the nakamal. It is the ceremonial center and the meeting house. Decisions about community issues are made there, while drinking kava. Kava has a calming effect, which makes for great discussions about whatever problems are plaguing the community. Women are not allowed in, except during ceremonial meals. Women don’t drink kava. Women have no voice in the running of the community.

I miss my freedoms. I miss being able to go where I want to, talk to who I want to, feel that it is my place to be in any room or with any group of people. I miss women and men sharing housework, childrearing and daily chores. I miss having male friends. I miss feeling like I have value in the community without a judgment based on whether I was born with a penis or a vagina.

I’m writing this after a rough day of feeling like the social inferior of my partner. I’m upset, but in the spirit of honesty, I am writing about it. Not every second here has been laughter and fun, but enough of them have been to make it well worth it.

On the production and effects of Kava, the Vanuatu drug of choice

Alcohol here is relatively unimportant. Some people drink it, there are people who are known drunks, but really it is confined to the big cities. That is because there is kava. Not the kind of kava that comes in powdered form in the US as a sleep aid. This is fresh root shopped and mushed and turned into a wretchedly nasty drink. I mean, it tastes nasty. This is not up for dispute. Everyone agrees it tastes awful, but for some reason people continue to drink it.
After several sessions of imbibing, here are my impressions (with Jason’s editorials). First off, don’t drink after you’ve eaten. This is strictly a before dinner drink. The effects are a bit like being drunk in that your head spins a bit and coordination is more difficult but it differs in that alcohol can make people act crazy or reckless and kava mostly makes you want to sit and chat or go to sleep. Also, kava immediately makes your mouth go tingly-numb but sensation returns pretty quickly. It is pretty mellow and works great for making me deaf to the roosters in the morning. (I sort of hate the roosters. I might start eating meat just as an excuse to kill the damn things. I swear they have no sense of time. Dawn does not come at 2 am, it doesn’t come at 3 am it doesn’t come until 5:30 and even then there is NO reason to be making that much noise that close to my head.)
The culture in this village says that women can drink one or two shells. That isn’t true in all villages or on all islands. On Tanna, the island with the exploding volcano, women aren’t even allowed to look at a nakamal where kava is being drunk. Seriously, they have to walk around the back through the jungle at night to avoid going near the place where the men are drinking kava. I will discuss feminine/masculine issues at some later date. The women don’t seem to prepare the kava on any island, though I wonder if that is different within the home instead of among a group of people. Not that the homes are anything shy of a group at any point.
To make kava, you start in the garden. You dig up a kava plant and break off the roots. Then you stick the kava plant back in the ground so it can grow some new ones. You bring the kava back home and peel it. Then you chop it up into little pieces, usually using a bushknife on a 4×4. This is manly time, afterall. From there you can choose to chew it into a pulp and spit it into a bowl, grind it in a meat grinder or grind it in your hand with a piece of coral. Once it is sufficiently ground, mushed or masticated, you add water and start straining. It goes through the strainer about five times, maybe more. By strainer, I actually mean a t-shirt, sometimes a slip, or a piece of mesh (I think it comes from a coconut tree, but I’m not sure yet) or other random piece of cloth. When it gets good and muddy colored, you drink it.
You always drink facing away from people. This is to save your own dignity. It tastes bad and people make funny faces. It can also make you spit, so general people walk away from the group, drink the kava, spit for awhile, then come back. If you eat something right away, it takes most of the taste out of your mouth. Then you sit and storian until you are ready for food and sleep.