A Beginner’s Guide to the Kava Ceremony

Misty McIntosh


(Peter, Misty and Tamoure, their Oyster 435, left the UK in 1993 and have spent the past five years cruising the South Pacific. Misty is a Flying Fish ‘regular’, having written for us on four previous occasions.)


First a confession – the Skipper and I are a pair of traditional (some might say old-fashioned) middle-aged Brits, who probably need an attitude change. We love cruising the Pacific islands and discovering different cultures, but when it comes to matters of food and drink we know what we like and we like what we know – preferably accompanied by a glass of chilled Chardonnay! The native experience is not something we actively seek out. Many years ago a friend, veteran of two circumnavigations, introduced us to the term ‘snooly’ as used to describe local food of suspect origin and little visual appeal. The first time we were invited to Sunday lunch in a lovely Fijian village, among the many goodies put before us was ‘snooly on a leaf’ – there being few plates and only one fork. And surprisingly tasty it was too!

The ‘up’ side of having such a conservative attitude to life and all its adventures is that we always strive to do the right thing as far as local etiquette is concerned – though we’d love a rule book at the entrance to each village! Imagine our apprehension, on arrival in Fiji for the first time, regarding the kava ceremony and all it entailed. We understood the basic rules and knew what was expected of us, but the finer points remained a bit of a mystery.


Once you start cruising in the South Pacific you have to put aside all previous ideas you may have had about who owns what. All land belongs to someone – and it’s not ‘the public’. There is some government-owned land, but the seafront and the bits you’d like to explore will usually belong to the nearest village and within the village individual families will own certain areas, called ‘gardens’, where they grow their crops. To anchor, swim, walk ashore etc without asking permission is the equivalent of a total stranger pitching his tent or caravan on your front lawn back home! You wouldn’t much like it, and even if he asked you’d probably still say no.

Luckily for yachties there is a way round this in Fiji, which involves visiting the village Chief and presenting him with a gift of kava roots in a wee ceremony where he will grant you permission to remain on his property, walk through his village, swim in his sea etc. You are now accepted as a member of the village – which brings certain obligations to behave accordingly. ‘Modest’ dress is a must, no hats or sunglasses should be worn and backpacks should be carried anywhere but on the back. The villagers probably won’t show open disapproval if their social codes are broken, but it pays to respect their ways. A formal farewell – plus a thank you, of course – on leaving relieves the village of any further responsibility for you.

Kava (also called yaqona) comes from the roots of the pepper plant, which are ground to a powder in a sort of giant pestle and mortar. Then (this is where it gets a bit disgusting!) it goes into what looks to foreign eyes like an old tea towel, water is poured on/squeezed through to a certain strength – and when the whole thing looks just like muddy dish water, guess what? You get to drink it! (And if you think that’s bad enough, in the past the roots were first chewed by young women to soften them prior to the addition of water!). It is mildly narcotic and has a numbing effect on lips and tongue. The locals call it ‘grog’ and it is widely drunk throughout Fiji and other South Pacific countries. Only recently have the Fijian Police been banned from drinking it while on duty!

It’s very much a male thing. At the end of a day’s work on the plantation the men gather and knock back the grog. They will sit cross-legged (there’s a certain lack of chairs in these family villages) round the kava bowl – frequently, but not always, a special wooden bowl which may be beautifully carved and of some antiquity – and pass the stuff round in a half coconut shell. In markets, wherever there is a gathering of men (usually idle men) there will also be a kava bowl, regardless of time of day. In certain areas kava drinking to excess has become a serious social problem, though the participants are more likely to be torpid and lethargic than drunk and disorderly.

The first time I saw kava it was on the counter of the hardware section at the back of a supermarket. ‘That’s funny,’ thought I, ‘they’re obviously washing some mechanical parts in oily water...’ then I saw the coconut shell and the penny dropped. This was no dirty water in a plastic basin – this was the staff’s kava bowl. No wonder we were apprehensive – and not the only ones either. We met a couple who’d actually bought some ‘instant’ kava powder (not what’s required for the Chief, it must be the roots) to try in private – just to check they could get it down! Gagging in front of your hosts would be considered rude.


To the uninitiated – the ‘kava virgin’ – there seems a minefield to be negotiated before that half coconut shell comes your way, but there is absolutely nothing to worry about. It is all made incredibly easy for the anxious yachtie.

First worry – how will I recognise kava and how much do I buy? No problems there, since it is the most obvious thing you will see in every Fijian market. It looks like a bundle of sticks, and on Tamoure I am slightly ashamed to say that ‘presenting sevusevu’ – to give the ceremony its proper title – quickly became ‘playsticks’! As in: ‘We’d better go and do playsticks!’ In the market, kava will most likely be gathered into pre-wrapped bundles of varying sizes, so your only decision is a financial one. We found $10–15 seemed acceptable. As with wine, some kava is better than others and therefore costs more, depending on where it comes from, but our palates haven’t reached that level of sophistication.

Second worry – we know we must find the Chief on arrival in an anchorage but how will we recognise him? A sponsor is supposed to accompany us and introduce us, but where do we get one of those? In fact, finding either the Chief or someone to lead you to him is no problem at all. What we’d failed to allow for was that our presence in an anchorage doesn’t go unnoticed. Even if we could see no sign of a village the locals knew we were there, and they also knew it would only be a matter of time before we came ashore clutching our playsticks. It’s easy in a remote bay off a small village to imagine you are pioneers in the presentation of your kava. Wrong! The villagers know all about it and have been doing it among themselves for years. It’s part of their tradition and shows an age-old respect for elders. Because they are such friendly, helpful people they will not embarrass you by leaving you to struggle on your own to find the Chief. There will always be at least one person at the water’s edge to greet you – and if you arrive outside school hours, well ... you’ll be mobbed.

Our first experience was a little confusing since the person who came to greet us was an elderly man who looked pretty Chief-like – and in fact was more imposing than the Chief himself. Fortunately there was also a woman near the water’s edge, so I was able to make a discreet inquiry as to whether or not this was the Chief. It later became obvious that whilst visitors may be important, we’re not that important – you will never be welcomed ashore by the Chief himself!


And so to the presentation of your kava. You will be introduced by the person accompanying you and then invited inside the Chief’s house (leaving your shoes at the door). Some Chiefs speak English – our experience was a mixture – but the person who met you coming ashore most certainly will, and he will keep you right and interpret for you. I always felt as a woman that it was important to hang back and look meek! Men rule in these parts and if you’re a bit of a chatterbox you’d do well to keep quiet. The Chief – whether English-speaking or not – will be exceptionally polite, but he is unlikely to be interested in small talk from the little woman. Sorry girls!

You will be invited to sit on the floor – remember that shortage of chairs – cross-legged for men, legs tucked under for women. You lay your kava in front of the Chief, thus giving him the opportunity to refuse it, though I’m sure this is unheard of. The official greeting is ‘noqu sevusevu gor’. We haven’t a clue what it means, but on those occasions we have remembered the words the response has been one of utter delight! Well worth the effort. The Chief will then make a speech of welcome, long or short, in English or Fijian. Our first experience was of a very long speech, the only words we understood being ‘ScotLAND-y’ and ‘vinaka’ (thank you). Along with our kava we always take something small for the children, and perhaps for the Chief’s wife, to hand over as we leave, but ‘playsticks’ should take priority on your first trip ashore. You may be asked for your cruising permit, so you should bring it with you.

Unless you’re very lucky, or very well padded, the funny bone on your ankle will be the first to complain and here we come to a new worry – how to leave without causing offence. You’re not supposed to stand while the Chief is sitting, yet it would be rude of him to rush his guests away. You could be locked into this all day unless you find some diplomatic way out! We’ve tried: ‘We’ve taken up too much of your time ...’, but that’s a very British concept which doesn’t really work, since they generally have all the time in the world. Asking if we may now visit the village, or perhaps even the school, is a good exit line – it would be rude for the Chief to refuse your request, so you’re released.

As yachties we are generally ‘off the beaten track’, but we did have one negative experience at an inland village, close enough to Nadi to be on the tourist run, where sevusevu was expected. A very surly Chief was quick to take all we were carrying, which was more than usual since we were in a car and at the end of our time in Fiji with some playsticks to spare. He then demanded an unreasonable amount of money to walk round the village, with his son as compulsory guide, though the price went down a bit on receipt of some sweets for his children. (Yes – the old candy bribe, I’m afraid!). We were disappointed to witness the ‘ugly’ side of tourism, but I suppose it’s inevitable, and just proves that you are more welcome by yacht than by car!


As for actually drinking your gift, we stumbled quite by accident on a useful ploy that worked for a while. We arrived off our first Fijian village late in the afternoon – not undetected though, as two young lads were soon on their way out to greet us on a flimsy piece of driftwood. Capsize was inevitable so we invited them on board for coke and cookies, in the course of which we established that yes, there was a village, with a Chief, but it would be all right to come ashore in the morning to present sevusevu. This allowed us to get the boat squared away in time for a nice glass of Chardonnay at sunset! This worked for us on several occasions since even the most hardened Chief isn’t into kava drinking first thing in the morning. However we hadn’t allowed for the fact that our success was largely due to visiting Chiefs too old to work, or doing playsticks on a Saturday when the village was at rest.

Not surprisingly, our luck eventually ran out. We arrived earlier than usual and went ashore immediately, only to be told the Chief was in the plantation and we should come back after 4pm. This was our first ‘end of the day’ experience – we suspected where it was leading – and we were passed from one villager to another before being handed across to English-speaking Mark, whom we assumed to be the Chief, young though he was. We were ushered into the family house, assumed our positions on the floor and laid our bundle in front of him. Usually at this point the Chief picks up the kava, looks at it as if he’s never seen it before, and then launches into the speech of welcome. But Mark did nothing. We were horrified! What had we done wrong? What terrible blunder had we made? The three of us sat around staring at the kava, making idle chitchat, and two of us were seriously concerned at what dreadful gaffe we’d committed. All was soon made clear with the arrival of an elderly man – Mark’s father, the Chief! We’d thought Mark looked a bit young for such high office. To our utter amazement the Chief was wearing a navy blue T-shirt with the word ‘Scotland’ and a wee thistle logo on the pocket! We couldn’t get over this. Mark spoke good English and was able to explain the significance, and our delight, to his father. It was fairly obvious we were in for our kava baptism and this seemed an appropriate occasion.

After the speech of welcome we three trooped outside for the pounding of our root, and quite hard work it was too. I was greatly relieved to see Mark take the tea towel needed for the next stage from a washing line – we’d imagined a manky old rag! It was more of a pouch than a plain towel, into which went the newly pounded kava. Then we retreated inside, since the next stage – getting the brew at ideal strength – required the supervision of father. Mark poured water over the towel, squeezed the contents, and caught the end result in the family’s beautifully ornate kava bowl. At intervals he would pass a small cup to the Chief for sampling, and only when Papa gave the thumbs up did our little ceremony begin. It definitely helped our stomachs to see it prepared before our eyes! It may not be to our taste but it did seem reasonably hygienic.

We could not have had a more polite tutor than Mark. He asked if it was our first time – I think a wise answer would be yes, even if it wasn’t! This meant Peter was given a modest sized portion, I was able to ask for a small without causing offence, and as a couple we were unlikely to be involved in an all-night session. I’m pleased to say we managed seconds, without gagging or pulling faces, but I think we’d have had difficulty with thirds, which we declined. On acceptance of the cup you say ‘bula’, clap once, and down it in one gulp – you may be glad you asked for a small! – and then clap three times. We often got the claps muddled up but it never seemed to matter. Willing participation was more important than getting all the moves right.

The whole experience was handled with such charm and courtesy it made us a bit ashamed of our earlier reluctance and deviousness. Perhaps if we’d been younger, scruffier, less respectful of their ways, they might not have tried so hard to make it ‘easy’ for us. One forgets the Fijians appreciate that this is not part of our culture, and they are such nice people that they would never embarrass a visitor. We were always left with the impression that they’re just thrilled you have tried. We came away smiling – kava virgins no more!


Subsequent visits made playsticks much easier. Our apprehension was gone and we didn’t feel we’d embarrass ourselves, or our hosts, when offered the kava cup – but it’s no substitute for a nice glass of Chardonnay!



(2759 words)


SEVUSEVU FOR DUMMIES : A Beginners Guide to the Kava Ceremony

Misty McIntosh – Page 5