SevuSevu and Kava drinking

When going to visit a village in Fiji there are certain traditions which one should follow in order to show respect to the villagers. Hats and sunglasses must be removed and nothing should be carried on the shoulders – even the village children whose school is normally just outside the village remove their rucksacks from their backs when entering the village and carry them in their arms. Women should not bare their shoulders and everyone should cover their thighs. The people of Fiji have been given the right by the government to fish from allocated areas referred to as ‘Iqoliqoli' so any boat arriving in one of these areas must ask for permission to anchor there and to walk freely on the land. It appears that most areas are covered by Iqoliqoli so with suitable attire we would take our gift of Kava (Yangona) into a village to ask to do Sevusevu.

The ceremony of sevusevu can be a very formal affair where the yangona is given to the Turaga ni koro (village head man) who will then discuss with you what your intentions are (how long you will stay, if you want to walk on the island etc) then take you and your gift to present to the chief. In a formal ceremony the head man will take the visitors to the chief's house or village hall and inform the occupants already inside of their presence – they will then be asked to go in and sit facing the chief. The head man will clap his hands three times which means ‘I am about to speak' then chant something in Fijian and then clap three more times ‘official introduction done' and on his knees present the gift to the chief. The second in command will officially accept the gift whilst chanting something else and with three claps at the beginning and end of his speech. The yangona will then be ground and mixed to make the kava and the drinking will begin!

In reality, the Turaga ni koro and the chiefs are quite often at work in the fields and have to be sent for so the sevusevu becomes a very informal affair with just one or two of the head men in attendance and after a brief presentation of the yangona, permission is granted and that's that. No drinking of the kava!

Kava drinking used to be the prerogative of chiefs, priests and village elders but nowadays seems to be a daily ritual of many Fijians. It has become a social habit where people sit around drinking kava and chatting. Kava is said to have a calming effect, reduce blood pressure and combat depression – certainly they are generally a happy bunch. It does have mild narcotic effect and does make your tongue numb! So what is it………….

Kava (yangona in Fijian) is drink prepared from the root (we originally thought it was only from the root but have discovered it can be from the stem too) of an intoxicating pepper plant ‘Piper methysticum'. The plant is grown in many parts of Fiji and is certainly a good cash crop. To present ‘sevusevu' the norm is to give about half a kilo which will cost on average 18 Fiji dollars. The root and other parts of the plant and washed and chopped and then put out in the sun to dry.



Once dry, they are crushed to a powder and this powder is mixed with water to make the drink (locally known as grog) in a ‘Tanoa' – a traditional hand crafted bowl but in casual sessions it can be a plastic bowl! The resulting mixture looks like muddy water. The crushing is quite often done as a social thing too with a few men taking turns to do the pounding. I must admit the whole process doesn't appear to be a very healthy affair – from the way it is mixed (in a cloth bag which is them massaged in someone's hands) and then drunk from a communal bowl. Hoping that they have clean hands is the least of it! If the chief is present he will have his own bowl (Bilo – a polished half coconut shell) and everyone else will share another bilo. The person receiving the bilo will clap once (cobo – a cupped hand deep clap) then drink the whole thing then clap three times ‘glass empty' and pass the bilo back for the next person to have his grog! After the first bowl the taste isn't quite so bad – besides then you have a numb tongue! In some communities women do not partake in these drinking sessions and when we have been present as guests we have been given (thankfully) a small amount in the bilo. Quite often there's kava pounding going on at the same time to provide an endless supply of powder. We have not stayed long at these sessions but understand that they can go on until the early hours of the morning – generally I guess when they don't have to get up for work the next day!