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In praise of kava

While politicians debates the pros and cons of decriminalising cannabis, another even safer soft drug is already freely available in New Zealand. Scott Hamilton explores the history and importance of kava in the Pacific Islands, and why it could be the drug of New Zealand’s future.

New Zealand is debating whether to decriminalise marijuana, and Bob McCoskrie is worried. McCoskrie is the director of Family First, a conservative Christian lobby group that has established a campaign called Say No To Dope to teach Kiwis about the evils of marijuana, and about the dangers of decriminalising the drug. According to McCoskrie and his comrades, decriminalisation will popularise marijuana, and also increase the use of other, harder drugs. McCoskrie worries that, eventually, even narcotics will be sold openly and without legal sanction throughout New Zealand.

But if Bob McCoskie visits the southern or western suburbs of Auckland, he will discover a sometimes potent narcotic already offered for sale, at very low prices, from scores of corner dairies, fruit shops, and superettes. The narcotic is made from the ground up and pounded roots of the kava plant, which grows in the tropical Pacific. The Pacific Islanders who arrived in Auckland in large numbers in the 1960s and ‘70s brought kava with them. Today every flight from Tonga or Fiji or Vanuatu brings loads of brown powder, which find their way to the bowls and cups of kava clubs and church halls and living rooms.

I buy my kava from a superette on the Great North Road in West Auckland. For six dollars I get half a kilogram of brown powder. The Indo-Fijian men who run the superette tell me that their kava comes from Kadavu, a dry, scantly populated island a day’s boat ride south from Suva. They often run out of the drug, especially when the Samoan church down the road is hosting a wedding.

As they have debated the decriminalisation of marijuana, our politicians and journalists have often referred to societies in Europe and the Americas – Portugal, Uruguay, Colorado – where drug laws have been reformed, and drug users no longer fear prosecution. But no one, so far as I can tell, has discussed our neighbours in Pacific nations like Tonga, Fiji, and Vanuatu. In these countries, drug use is not only tolerated but institutionalised.

I learned to drink kava at the ‘Atenisi Institute, a small university on the swampy outskirts of Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital and only city, when I taught there in 2013. ‘Atenisi, whose name is Tongan for Athens, was founded in the 1960s by Futa Helu, an opera buff and lover of Greek philosophy. Inspired by the way Socrates and Plato debated the meaning of life while sitting around a wine bowl, Helu began to philosophise around a kava bowl. Young Tongans came to listen to and debate with him, and later helped him build a set of classrooms and a library.

A collage of Futa Helu in Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’, made for his 70th birthday. Futa is here portrayed with Plato and Aristotle.

Futa Helu died in 2010, but a fondness for kava persists at ‘Atenisi. On Friday nights students and staff sit around a kava bowl in their Lolo Masi Building, under a high ceiling that Helu himself raised. The building’s door and windows are thrown open to the warm night, and as pigs and dogs slosh about in the nearby swamp a fire is lit on a ledge to keep mosquitoes away. Students empty a bag of brown powder into a folded fine cloth, then pour water through the cloth and into a huge wooden bowl. The person sitting closest to the bowl ladles kava into a series of coconut shell cups; the cups are passed, one by one, around the circle, until everyone has a drink. The kava is sculled, rather than sipped. The members of the circle talk and sing between cups.

There is a large school down the road from the ‘Atenisi Institute that is run by members of the Baha’i religion. The school’s teachers sometimes stop at ‘Atenisi on a Friday night for a few cups of kava. Once I asked a Baha’i drinker why he was allowed to imbibe kava when his religion banned him from touching alcohol. The man smiled at the silliness of my question. “God likes kava,” he explained. “Alcohol makes you stupid, but kava makes you wise.”

There is something to be said for the Baha’i drinker’s argument. Alcohol stupefies its users, one drink at a time, slowing their thoughts and blurring their perceptions. Kava, by contrast, not only keeps the heads of its drinkers clear, but intensifies their hearing and their vision, even as it relaxes their bodies and puts smiles on their faces.

Kava has another unusual effect. Other narcotics, including most notoriously the opiate family, create tolerance in their uses, so that they must be consumed in higher and higher doses if they are to remain effective. Kava, though, creates a ‘reverse tolerance’: the more regularly one uses the drug, the less one needs to consume to feel its effects.

Kava or kava-kava (Piper methysticum). Photo: Wikicommons

Futa Helu is often cited as the brains behind the pro-democracy movement that confronted and largely defeated Tonga’s absolute monarchy in the 1990s and early 2000s. But Helu wanted to democratise Tonga’s kava drinking, as well its government. Traditionally a kava session was a highly ritualised affair, with drinkers seated around the bowl in order of their social status, and long and formal speeches offered to chiefs and royals.

At about the time he was setting up ‘Atenisi, Helu and some friends founded a series of kava clubs where drinkers could sit where they liked, and talk to whomever they liked about whatever they liked. Helu called the clubs fofo’anga, after the pieces of pumice that drift through the warm seas of Tonga, and wash up on one island after another. Today there are fofo’anga in every Tongan village, and dozens in Nuku’alofa. The Tongan diaspora has created clubs in New Zealand, Australia, and America.

Anybody who stepped into a New Zealand pub and sat down with a group of strangers would raise eyebrows. If that uninvited guest began to sing loudly and tell ribald jokes, then he or she would be even less welcome. But at the clubhouses and halls where fofo’anga convene, noisy and bawdy strangers are both expected and welcomed.

Fofo’anga etiquette demands that anyone must be allowed to join the circle around a kava bowl. Singing, jokes and outrageous behaviour are common around the bowl. During visits to fofo’anga I’ve heard long-winded and lascivious jokes about Kylie Minogue, surreal interpretations of Old Testament stories, and angry speeches about the failure of Tonga’s monarchy. I’ve heard hundreds of songs, from Tongan-language hymns to country and western classics. I’ve seen elderly men jump to their feet and, to the accompaniment of cheers and giggles, re-enact episodes from an ancient pig hunting expedition or a long-lost rugby game.

There is one respect in which almost all fofo’anga clubs are restrictive: women may not enter their drinking circles, unless they act as toua, or kava servers, by sitting beside the bowl and filling cups. Toua are expected to act demurely, and to ignore the antics of drinkers. Only at ‘Atenisi and a handful of liberal clubs can Tongan women drink kava.

Young women and kava bowl, Samoa, ca. 1899-1940s. Photo: Malcolm Ross / National Library of New Zealand

Futa Helu hoped that fofo’anga would help to change Tonga, by providing a space where the kingdom’s problems could be discussed. It is possible, though, that the democratic kava clubs have helped to stabilise Tonga, by letting men shed, night after night, their ordinary identities, and the burdens that come with those identities. Tonga is an intricately hierarchical society. Royals and nobles and priests demand and usually receive respect. A commoner who fails to tithe at church or bring a gift to a noble’s wedding risks denunciation and disgrace. Young Tongan men usually live with their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles, who direct and monitor their activities. The fofo’anga has become a liminal place, where Tongans can say and do things forbidden outside its doors. Inside the fofo’anga the lowliest commoner can mock his country’s nobility, or joke about his church. In a small, conformist society, the kava club is a sort of safety valve.

Although informal kava drinking is a modern innovation, the boisterous and sometimes outrageous behaviour at fofo’anga has precedents. Clowning has a long history in Tonga. Kings and chiefs once kept clowns and harlequins in their courts, and at events like feasts and weddings these performers delighted audiences by noisily breaching protocols. They might tell jokes, or imitate the movements of animals and fish, or mock the voices and mannerisms of their patrons. Sometimes commoners joined in the clowning. The playwright and scholar Vilsoni Hereniko has argued that clowning let Tongans express dissent without threatening the social order. The antics of drinkers at today’s kava clubs might be considered a continuation of the clowning tradition.

The Seleka Art and Kava Club takes Futa Helu’s democratisation of kava drinking and the clowning at fofo’anga to a glorious extreme. Seleka was founded by Tevita Latu, a painter and political activist who became famous, in the early 2000s, for the pro-democracy graffiti he left on Tonga’s walls. Latu was imprisoned, tortured, and charged with treason after the riot that destroyed much of downtown Nuku’alofa in 2006. The charge was eventually dropped, and Latu was released. After recovering from his injuries, he and his supporters scavenged enough wood to build a hut beside Nuku’alofa’s lagoon. Visitors to the Seleka clubhouse are surprised to find a disco ball hanging from the ceiling and psychedelic paintings on the walls.

Where the patrons of most kava clubs sing love songs and hymns, the ‘Selekarians’, as they call themselves, like to listen to hip hop and techno on a loud stereo. They dye their kava bright colours – purple and crimson are favourites – and drink it from a toilet bowl. Selekarians are forbidden from using their real names inside the clubhouse, and instead go by specially created monikers (Tevita Latu is known as Buddha; Taniela Potelo, another leading Selekarian, goes by the name Plastic; the rapper Siua Ongosia, who stops by the club for the occasional kava, has been awarded the name Sosisi, or Sausage).

Seleka club members sit up through the night, painting and drawing at a long table. Tevita Latu moves up and down the table, pouring kava and offering advice on draughtmanship and imagery.

The Seleka Club has been condemned by some conservative Tongans, but its members have exhibited their art in New Zealand, Australia, and Tahiti, and last year Tevita Latu and two of his friends were artists in residence at Massey University.

Many of the Seleka Club’s members are teenagers who have dropped out of high school and become estranged from their families. Often these young men and women have experimented with marijuana, amphetamines, and homebrew alcohol, all of which are cheaply available in Nuku’alofa. At Seleka, they substitute kava for their old drugs.

Tevita Latu is a big man who moves and speaks quietly. His hands and his beard are usually flecked with paint, and a lozenge-shaped scar on his bald head recalls the beatings police gave him in 2006. When I last visited the Seleka Club Latu was finishing a large painting that showed bloated men adorned with crucifixes drinking blood from kava cups. Latu told me that the painting was called Contemporary Cannibalism, and that it was a protest against the avarice of some of Tonga’s clergy.

Latu’s painting alluded to the seventeenth century Tongan king Kau’ulufonuafekai, or Kau’ulufonua the savage, who once punished a group of his enemies by pulling their teeth out and making them grind kava roots with their bleeding gums. Kau’ulufonuafekai’s victims spat a mixture of kava and blood into a cup he held up; the savage king drained the cup. Tongan churches often organise kava clubs, where drinkers are tithed. Like Kau’ulufonuafekai, Tevita Latu suggested, ministers drink the blood of their subjects.

Preparing kava. Photo: Dave Lonsdale / Flickr.com / CC BY 2.0

By the time I visited Vanuatu last year I considered myself an expert kava drinker. Besides visiting establishments like the Seleka Club in the Friendly Islands, I’d drunk with expatriate Tongans in Auckland’s kava clubs and church halls, and at home with friends. On my first night in Port Vila I headed for one of the city’s numerous kava bars. I got directions to a bar on a low hill just outside the city, and was surprised to find that it consisted only of a light bulb hanging from a mango tree and a bucket sitting on a small table. It was a warm, dry night, but the man behind the table wore a hooded yellow raincoat. He was selling coconut shells full of kava for one hundred vatu (a little more than one New Zealand dollar) each.

A couple of huge moths made the bulb sway and flicker. In the dim light I could make out a knot of drinkers standing quietly a few metres away. After drinking a couple of shells beside the table I wandered over to the group, but they had little to say to me, and seemed to have even less to say to each other.

I decided to retreat to the table under the mango tree and buy another shell of kava, but on the way back my legs began to wobble, and my hips quivered oddly. I wondered whether I might be suffering from deep-veined thrombosis, then remembered that the flight from Auckland to Port Vila had only lasted three hours. Back under the mango tree the man with the bucket gave me some advice, waving his ladle solemnly. Don’t drink too fast, he said, and don’t drink more than four or five shells: Vanuatu kava is very strong. And don’t talk too much, or too loudly, he added: a kava bar is supposed to be a quiet place, dedicated to contemplation and quiet conversation.

Traditionally ni-Vanuatu songwriters and artists have used kava for inspiration. In their book Kava: The Pacific Elixir Lamont Lindstrom, Mark Merlin, and Vincent Lebot mention a forest clearing where distinguished ni-Vanuatu songwriters were buried; when the descendants of these bards wanted help to compose a melody or lyric they would go to the clearing, drink kava, and listen to the dead. One drinker I met in a Port Vila bar explained in a whisper that kava reminded him of his dreams, and helped him interpret them.

Ralph Regenvanu is an anthropologist, painter, and Vanuatu’s Minister of Lands. Regenvanu wants his country to be as self-sufficient as possible, so that it can avoid the foreign debt and huge import bills that have almost bankrupted some other Pacific nations. When I visited his Port Vila office last year Regenvanu talked about the ‘Slow Food’ festivals he had helped organise to promote ni-Vanuatu food and drink. At these festivals a mixture of ni-Vanuatu and tourists eat traditional delicacies like yams and lobsters and pig, and drink large quantities of kava. Regenvanu is a regular at Port Vila’s kava bars; like Tevita Latu in Tonga, he sees kava as a bulwark against much more destructive Western drugs.

Like the fofo’anga of Tonga, the kava bars of Port Vila are a modern phenomenon. The first kava bar was opened in 1981, when Vanuatu had just become independent from Britain and France, and was suffering a campaign of economic sabotage directed from Paris. The old colonial masters had manipulated Vanuatu’s currency, which was still tied to the Franc, so that imported goods became extremely expensive. The price of beer and wine was absurd, and the bars and restaurants of Port Vila were almost empty. A local opened a bar that sold cheap kava instead of unaffordable booze; he soon had dozens of competitors. Women had been excluded from the nakamals, the buildings and clearings where ni-Vanuatu had traditionally consumed kava, but they soon began to drink at Port Vila’s kava bars.

If Tonga is a homogenous and hierarchical society, then Vanuatu is a diverse and sometimes chaotic place. Its quarter of a million people speak one hundred and thirty different languages, and no monarch or warlord has ever forced them into a single polity. Even the European colonisers struggled to impose their will on the whole archipelago.

In many parts of ancient Vanuatu secret societies were established where powerful men could drink kava and practice sorcery. Lamont Lindstrom argues that these secret societies were attempts to achieve order and repose in the midst of instability. Now, in the bars of Port Vila, kava is drunk by anybody who can pay for it, and the secrecy of the old societies is gone, but the desire for a refuge from the boisterousness of everyday life seems to persist. If the fofo’anga of Tonga are anarchic zones in the midst of a controlled, conformist society, then the kava bars of urban Vanuatu are places of respite from a complex and fluid social scene.

Photo of a sign outside Yirrkala, Northern Territory, Australia, where kava is encouraged as a safer alternative to alcohol. Photo: Ray Norris / Wikicommons

Whether it is drunk in Tonga or Vanuatu or Auckland, kava is a drug that causes remarkably few problems. I have never seen a brawl in a fofo’anga, and a raised fist seems as rare as a raised voice in Port Vila’s kava bars. If neither the police nor moral watchdogs like Bob McCoskrie have noticed Auckland’s burgeoning kava scene, it is because kava drinkers don’t crash their cars or stab each other or rob dairies for supplies.

Kava already has some evangelists in New Zealand. A group of mostly palangi advocates of the drug recently created a Kava Society at the University of Auckland. One of the society’s founders was Zbigniew Dumienski, an academic who has travelled through the Pacific tasting and analysing various strains of kava. In interviews with curious journalists, Dumienski has emphasised his group’s eschewal of some of the rituals that traditionally surrounded kava drinking in places like Tonga. The Kava Society’s members mix their drink in metal bowls, and consume it from protein shakers. Fijian-Auckland writer Emmaline Matagi has accused the Kava Society of cultural appropriation and of disrespecting Pacific customs, but Edmond Fehoko, who wrote a PhD on New Zealand’s fofo’anga clubs, has come to the group’s defence, arguing in an opinion piece for Vice that most Kiwi Tongans drink kava in the same informal manner as the university club. The only real difference, Fehoko suggested, was the colour of the university drinkers’ skin. Zbigniew Dumienski and his friends might be the vanguard of a wider movement toward kava.

Perhaps, instead of arguing hopelessly for Kiwis to abstain from all drugs, McCoskrie should follow the lead of Tevita Latu, Ralph Regenvanu, and Zbigniew Dumienski, and commend kava as a positive alternative to other, more sinister substances.


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