Thursday, March 14, 2013


There are many parts of our experience here that we've become so quickly accustomed to, we forget that they are genuinely unique and interesting to outsiders. Drinking kava is one of those things.

Kava is drink made from a native root, and it is consumed, in some fashion, in most every Polynesian culture. Since the drink is created by merely mixing the ground root with water, it tastes like, well, like mildly-flavored dirt water. It's physiological effects are hard to describe; most say that it just relaxes the body, but if one drinks very large quantities, it could certainly be deemed as intoxicating (though not near to the extent of alcohol). In Tonga, kava circles are intertwined into every part of life. They are held on most nights in the villages, before and after church on Sundays, and are an honored part of any significant village event. Their formality ranges from casual gatherings to very formal, almost ritualistic events, with centuries of history behind each proceeding and spoken word. But foundationally, a "faikava" is simply a group of men sitting in a circle, passing polished coconut bowls of the drink to one another, as it is ladled out of a large, central bowl.

Kava circles primarily occur in two spots in Nuapapu: the Wesleyan hall (essentially a big room used for church events) and an outdoor bamboo tent-like structure outside the Free Church of Tonga. I definitely prefer the ambiance of the outdoor kava circle, and Amanaki, the Church of Tonga pastor, is an especially cool guy.

Being an adult male, I am encouraged to fully participate in the culture of kava drinking to whatever extent I would like. It is an obviously effective way to integrate into village life, a great place to practice my language, and to be honest, I really do like going. If I wanted to, I could drink kava almost every single night of the week - the sleep schedule of a mid-day nap for most Tongans allows for nightly kava circles that extend very late into the night. But, because I have a wife that likes to have me around, and because I am a teacher with a regular work schedule, I have chosen a more moderate approach. I generally try to shoot for one night a week, preferably a weekend night, as well as most special events.

Also, a common sight at many kava circles across the country is the presence of groups of musicians playing traditional songs on acoustic guitars and ukuleles in perfect, four part harmony. Though it is a small village, Nuapapu proudly boasts some formidable musical talent. So, most kava circles I attend are accompanied by these traditional acoustic bands, intermixing the usual kava jokes and banter with beautiful traditional music. The rhythm of the ceremony - sing a song, drink a cup, chat a little, and repeat- just simply continues for hours and hours. The simplicity and monotony of it all was hard to get used to at first, but I really have learned to appreciate it and truly enjoy it now.

The only musical instrument that we brought from the states was the ukulele, which has turned out to be an invaluable choice. Not only is Alissa learning to play it (and getting pretty good!), I often take it to kava and join in, as best I can, with the music. I have loved having this as a musical outlet for me, and it has definitely earned me some points with the guys in the village. When I am proudly introduced to a Tongan from a different village, it usually goes something like this: "This is Ma'ake, our Peace Corps, and he plays his ukulele at kava". You know, just the important stuff.

- Mark

1 comment: