Words by Bryson
Lat: 20 degrees 14 minutes S
Long: 169 degrees 46 minutes E
The evening sky was darkening, our eyes were only beginning to adjust to the gloom, the coconut husk fire was glowing and the embers being stoked by the dying afternoon breeze. We were sitting in a circle on the woven matt of our hosts, our faces flickering in the light of the cooking fire, listening the slow noises of the village settling down for the evening, our mouths filled with dirt.
When we first landed in Vanuatu after our 8 day passage from New Zealand we were greeted by Riene and James. An incredible young family who lived up in the hills, their modest abode shaded by a huge banana and moonflower tree. Tribal rules dictate that since they were the first people to greet us, they are the only people who are allowed to invite us into their homes; which is a huge honour from both the family and ourselves.
In order to prepare a traditional feast and kava drinking ceremony, there is a set of steps that must be followed to ensure everything is prepared according to kustom. Unfortunately, I cannot shed any light on the procedure for cooking the food since the male crew members had been invited to go and visit the newly circumcised males of the village in another village and were not present during the food preparations. However, after hearing about the incredible kava of the south pacific and Vanuatu being the home of the strongest and most authentic kava experience, we were all keen to learn as much as we could about the process.
Firstly, a good kava root must be chosen. The price of the root is defined by the number of notches carved in the root. Each notch carved represents 100 Vatu in Lenaku on Tanna. The first step in the preparation process is to remove all the capillary roots from the main tap root. These smaller roots are cleaned by scraping them down using the inner husk of a coconut shell, while the main tap root is peeled in the standard western manner.
Now, traditionally, a wife must chew the kava for her husband. If a ni-vanuatu lady chews your kava, you are expected to take her for your wife. This system is by no means historical and Riene is still responsible for chewing all James’ kava. We, however, were lacking in sufficient wives to chew our kava and Riene was not able to chew enough kava for the rest of us. As a result, she had her two nephews hard at work when we arrived. I do not think they really appreciated doing the work of a female for a bunch of white sailors.
However, curiosity finally got the best of all of us and soon we were all sitting on the woven matt chewing away.The system is pretty simple, grab the kava root and take a solid bite, then grab some of the cleaned sub-roots and stuff them all in your mouth. Now start chewing… soon the kava makes your mouth numb and it is very hard to stop drooling all over yourself. The kava tastes a lot like dirt and … well… dirt … mouth numbing dirt. The kava/saliva cement you have mixed in your mouth is then deposited into a communal dish, where it stays until sufficient kava cement has been chewed.
The pre-chewed kava is placed into a straining cloth with minimal amounts of water, this is then handworked and squeezed. Add water, handwork it, squeeze and repeat until enough kava juice has been squeezed out into a coconut husk.
Now drinking the kava has it’s own customs. Most important, kava must always be drunk with a companion. You begin with a drink in hand, then you pass yours to the other person. This shows respect to your drinking companion and in a way says ” My wife prepared this for me, but I offer it to you as a sign of respect.” A big breath and then you are expected to down your bowl. Afterwards as the taste of the kava hits, you turn and let loose a horrific spit into the bushes. It is just polite to do so…
As the kava settles into your blood stream, you begin to relax and your body slowly numbs. At this point all you want to do is sit down and relax. At this moment in our kava experience, Riene directed us to the feast she had prepared. Cassava chips, boiled swamp taro, taro with coconut milk, chicken, rice and other tasty local foodstuffs.
Jumping back: Prior to this whole ceremony, James sat us all down and welcomed us to his house and thanked us for coming. He even had prepared a few small gifts for us to begin the feast. Remember this family lives in a hut (for lack of a better word) in the hills with nothing a westerner would put huge value too…
James, Riene and their family probably live on less than a dollar a day, they have no electricity, they cook on a wood fire and they grow and hunt all the food they eat. They would be classified as living well below the global poverty line and without hospitals, doctors and all the other essential services, one would expect them to be wanting in so many ways. Yet I would not doubt that they are some of the happiest and truly generous people I have ever met.
So when we take away everything that is “essential” to our day to day living, when we take away everything that we crave, when we take away everything that makes our lives easier, do we really find happiness? Do we find the true human spirit of communal living and generosity without clauses?
If the people of Aneitym are any example to us all, then yes.