Why Drinking Kava Is No Longer All About Ceremony

Claims Auckland University's Kava Society is disregarding Pacific culture are not in step with modern Pacific culture, writes a Tongan kava academic.
July 27, 2017, 11:42pm

In Ireland it's Guinness, in Mexico it's tequila, in Scotland it's whisky, for the Greeks it's ouzo—and in the South Pacific, it's kava. A national beverage and activity can be a powerful expression of one's loyalties and cultural identity.

At the University of Auckland Kava Society. All photos by Todd Henry.

When early European voyagers made it to the Pacific, they reported kava-drinking served social and ceremonial purposes throughout the Pacific, including Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, and Vanuatu. The cultural practice of gathering around the kava bowl and drinking the mud-coloured water with sedative qualities derived from the kava root was a major form of social engagement in the lives of these communities.

Today, kava-drinking—or as Tongans call it, the faikava—is common in Tonga and wherever in the world Tongans have settled. When researching my PhD on kava practices in New Zealand, I spoke to Tongan elders who had formed the very first faikava club in Grey Lynn in the 1970s, during the Dawn Raid era. The club was a much-needed gathering place for Tongan youth who had immigrated for job opportunities. Many of them ended up targeted by police in night-time raids on alleged overstayers.

These days, faikava clubs have spread throughout the country. My research shows kava-drinking for New Zealand-born Tongan men has evolved from ceremonial purposes to a more informal social gathering. Just like the Kava Society at University of Auckland. The group meets weekly to sample different varieties of kava—it's an opportunity to gather together and enjoy an alternative to alcohol. The accusations that they are drinking kava in a "problematic" way, as reported on RNZ this week, don't line up with my research. The only thing that is different from the way that many other kava groups meet up around the country is that most of the club's members are white.

Many of the participants in my study valued the kava-drinking space as a place that signified "peace", "togetherness" and "close bonding". For club members, it is a way to come together to share knowledge and experience.

Similarly, Pacific males come together after a long week's work in church halls, garages, living rooms or an open space to share and talanoa [dialogue] about their daily experiences, sports, church, and political matters. In both cases, the kava is consumed to instigate and generate more stories to be shared.

The author, Edmond Fehoko, drinking kava.

Just like wider Pacific culture, kava-drinking will continue to evolve over time and space.

Follow Edmond on Twitter.