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Kava, Cash, and Custom in Vanuatu

Night comes early to Port Vila, Vanuatu's small capital town where some 20,000 of the country's 145,000 people now live. By 6:00 P.M. a goodly number of these townspeople are already settled in a variety of bamboo-walled, tin-roofed shelters, and are busy buying and drinking cups of kava (Piper methysticum), the Pacific's indigenous drug (see Lindstrom 1987). The number of Port Vila's urban kava bars (or nakamals, as these are called in Bislama, Vanuatu's Pidgin English) has increased dramatically since the country's independence in 1980. Only a handful of nakamals were doing business in 1980, when the urban drug of choice was imported Australian beer. Today, more than 60 nakamals are scattered throughout the town, and many people have renounced alcohol for kava. Kava bars also do business in several other Pacific countries, including Pohnpei (Federated State of Micronesia), Fiji, and New Caledonia.

In Vanuatu's rural, outer islands, people in the main continue to drink kava in a more traditional, ritualized manner; in town, however, there has been a brisk transformation of kava from sacred substance to recreational drug. Ironically, during the same years that this commodification of kava and the drug's shift from gift to market economy were underway, kava also flowered as a conspicuous emblem of Vanuatu's tradition and identity. In local political discourse and ceremony, kava drinking has come to stand for the value and endurance of island kastom - the distinctive traditions that politicians like to evoke in order to foster sentiments of national unity and identity. People in Vanuatu today are debating kava's contrary functions: traditional sacred substance on the one hand, and cash crop and contemporary political icon on the other.

Drinking Kava

Kava is a particularly appropriate symbol of Vanuatu's custom and national identity. Recent chemical and genetic analyses suggest that Piper methysticum was domesticated in northern Vanuatu about 3,000 years ago (see Lebot 1989; cf. Brunton 1989 for an opposing view). Early farmers, perhaps first attracted by the plant's medical uses, developed kava by selecting and cloning individuals of a Piper species (Piper wichmannii) that grows wild in northern Melanesia. From Vanuatu, Pacific voyagers and settlers carried kava cuttings eastward into Fiji and most of Polynesia (Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti and the Society Islands, the Marquesas, Hawaii, etc.), and also northward to two Micronesian islands (Pohnpei and Kosrae), and finally westward into scattered locales on the large island of New Guinea. Vanuatu, however, remains the zone of kava's greatest genetic, chemical, and morphological diversity. More varieties of kava exist here than anywhere else in the Pacific (see Labot, Merlin, and Lindstrom, in press).

A member of the pepper family, kava is a handsome shrub with heart-shaped leaves on stems that can grow up to three meters in height. It does not produce viable seeds and, like most Pacific cultigens, farmers propagate kava vegetatively with stem cuttings. The plant's psychoactive ingredients, a series of resinous, lipidlike lactones, are located mostly in its underground stump, or rootstock. These chemicals together act as a major muscle relaxant, analgesic, soporific, diuretic, and local anesthetic. They also reduce cardiac rhythm and dilate the pupils. The subtleties of the drug elude pharmacological classification, although kava has been classed as a sedative hypnotic. For most drinkers, the drug induces feelings of relaxed sociability and a delicate emotional serenity. Unlike alcohol, kava does not influence a drinker's abilities to think clearly; nor is it a hallucinogen.

Kava drinkers consumer rootstock "steeped" in cold water. The drink has an earthy, peppery flavor. ("It tastes like dirt," less enamored drinkers often remark.) Several customary techniques, including pounding, grinding, grating, and chewing, exist in various Pacific societies to process fresh or dried kava rootstock. In southern Vanuatu, for example, boys chew, spit out, and infuse mouthfuls of rootstock for their elders to drink. The trick is to break up the root fibers in order to release the psychoactive, insoluble kava resins in a water emulsion. In town, the larger urban nakamals nowadays use hand-cranked or electric meat grinders to prepare their rootstock supplies.

In most rural areas of the country, adult men gather at the end of the day to enjoy a coconut shell or two of kava. Unlike Polynesian societies that prescribe a polished etiquette of kava preparation and service wherein drinking order signifies local chiefly hierarchies, Vanuatu's more informal kava drinking practices tend to accentuate male equality - men bring along kava roots and share them with relatives and neighbors. Nearly everyone grows kava; the plant is an essential token in the gift economy. People exchange kava at life cycle feasts that mark births, circumcisions, marriages, and deaths. They also exchange kava to resolve neighborhood disputes. The capacity of gifts of kava to reconcile and harmonize relationships reflects people's expectations of the drug's peaceable and tranquilizing effects on their bodies.

Beyond everyday socializing, kava consumption also joins drinkers to their ancestors and other local spirits. Kava is sometimes a sort of sacrifice, a gift to the gods. Drinkers may pour out libations of kava, or spit final mouthfuls of the drink into the air. Other times, kava is more like a passkey to the supernatural realm; kava drunkenness is a mild, altered state of consciousness in which men may overhear the voices of their ancestors. In island epistemology, drunkenness is a meaningful experience that brings new knowledge (Lindstrom 1990).

Kava and Cash

Kava, today, is also worth money, in large part due to the growing numbers of urban nakamals in Port Vila that import kava rootstock from rural areas, principally Pentecost and Tanna islands. The plant is now a cash crop of increasing importance within the local market. It possesses a number of advantages vis-à-vis other cash crops (e.g., copra [dried coconut meat], cacao, and coffee), notably its high monetary return per work day. An agricultural survey in 1987 and 1988 estimated that Vanuatu's urban nakamals consume 400 metric tons of kava annually. This tonnage provides an average of 321 shellfuls of kava for each male aged twenty and older living in Port Vila (Lamboll 1988). Vila nakamals sell two sizes of coconut shell cups of kava: large shells (approximately 100 ml in size) go for 100 vatu (US$0.85), and smaller ones for 50 vatu. Estimated gross annual revenue at the nakamals was $916,000, of which kava farmers earned $150,000.

Vanuatu regularly exports an additional 50 tons of kava to the European pharmacological industry. The external kava market may soon strengthen. Technology is available to produce a spray-dried kava powder (similar to powdered milk). This "instant kava" could be flavored, perhaps sweetened, packaged, and marketed in Asia, Europe, and North America as a sort of "natural" herbal substitute for Valium and other chemical tranquilizers.

The accelerating commercialization of Vanuatu's ancestral drug has not passed without comment. For example, a letter (author's translation) to the government newspaper protests:

Sir, I'm a man who drinks kava frequently in Vila but I'm upset to see that a middleman who purchases kava on Tanna to sell in Vila doesn't think about the kava he sells in stores in plastic or net bags.... It's wrong for some of us to be irresponsible in the kava business! Please don't follow the bad practices of other countries in kava business, because kava is the produce of Vanuatu and there is a spirit in it.

Kava and Custom

Island politicians have also recognized the "spirit" in kava, and have put this spirit to work in fashioning a discourse of national unity and identity. Kava now stands for shared Vanuatu tradition - kastom - and that shared tradition bolsters sentiments of identity and unity. Nationalism serves up kava in a variety of Pacific states; the new Western Samoan two tala bill currency, for example, features as a plastic inset a customary Samoan kava bowl.

In Vanuatu, contemporary political ceremonies, such as the opening of Parliament, the welcoming of foreign ambassadors, and the celebration of independence day, may all include the conspicuous consumption of shells of kava. The country's several tour companies, which claim to offer overseas visitors an experience of island kastom, also sell excursions to the kava nakamals.

The Vanuatu government promotes kava to further other sorts of social policy as well, Notably, kava is contrasted with alcohol. Kava is the customary and healthy drug; alcohol, the alien poison. People have opposite expectations of the two drugs' effects, and their behavior when drunk typically reflects these beliefs: kava induces a relaxed sociability, whereas alcohol often leads to violence (see Marshall 1979 for a detailed description of alcohol use in one Pacific society). Government support of kava consumption has been apparent in the relatively low fees for nakamal business licenses (only $20 a year) and, conversely, in substantial taxes on imported alcohol.

Recently, however, the government licensed and took shares in a brewery, the National Brewery Ltd., opened in 1990 in Port Vila by Pripps, a subsidiary of Procordia, a Swedish multinational corporation. The company plans eventually to export much of its product, Tusker Beer, but also to capture the national market. It has set the price of a bottle of beer just above that of a large shell of kava. One prominent kava wholesaler has predicted difficulties ahead for the nakamals, as kava consumers shift back to alcohol: "But with Tusker Beer selling at the same price as a shell of kava, business may collapse" (Vanuatu Weekly 9/28/90). It remains to be seen just how much the new "national" beer will eat into consumption of the ancestral national drug.

Demon Kava?

Kava consumption is encountering another sort of opposition: women. Women traditionally drank kava only in a few communities in Vanuatu. In Port Vila, however, a number of women today patronize the nakamals, most often to purchase plastic bottles of kava-to-go that they can drink at home. Most nakamal customers, however, are men - and some of these men can be counted as heavy drinkers.

As a recreational drug, however, kava is benign compared with alcohol. Heavy usage has only one proven side effect - an ichthyotic drying of the skin. Recent concerns in Australia about deleterious effects of imported kava drinking in aboriginal communities of Queensland and the Northern Territory (e.g., see Cawte 1988) have ignored the fact that many aboriginal kava drinkers have been long-term abusers of other drug substances. In Vanuatu, kava's side effects are financial rather than medical. The coordinator of Vanuatu's National Council of Women has noted:

The women are complaining they don't have enough money for school fees, books and things for the family. The money has all gone on kava. In villages it's a problem because the only family income usually comes from copra. It's one of the most serious social problems today. (Mangnall 1990:19)


The kava nakamal recapitulates in an urban setting some of the traditional forms and manners of kava drinking. Despite the fact that it serves coconut shell cups of kava rather than bottles of beer, the nakamal has also borrowed practices from the Western bar. It prepares the drug in bulk. It charges money for a drink that, traditionally, was always a gift. It is open to all comers, not just the members of local kin groups. And kava's ancestral religious functions are here muted.

Vanuatu's kava drinkers have adopted a new Pidgin English word, redimed ("ready-made"), to distinguish the drink served in the urban nakamals from the customary, sacred kava. Like the nakamal, the drug itself is also caught between its old rural and its new urban uses. Promotion of town kava as a substitute alcohol and as an emblem of tradition "has transformed kava into, at worst, simply a locally available means of intoxication and, at best, into a sign in a discourse on culture, a form of aesthetics" (Philibert 1986:7). Some have read darker implications into kava's newly expanded contemporary capacities:

Kava helps mask and deal with tensions which are based on feelings about emerging economic and class differentiation, differentials in access to resources such as land, money, jobs, and knowledge, through education. What kava drinking does it to enhance a feeling of interpersonal universalism when many structurally profound changes are taking place. (Rubinstein 1987:57-58)

For better or worse, psychoactive kava does enhance feelings of interpersonal universalism and peaceful sociability. This attractive, emotionally altered state is available - one might even say ready-made - for ongoing political symbolic elaboration, just as the plant itself continues to be a valuable good within the traditional gift and, increasingly, market economies.

Given kava's increasing commercialization, its celebrity within nationalist discourse, and its contention with alcohol, the drug today is more popular than ever. As Port Vila's busy nakamals grind kava rootstock into 50- and 100-vatu shells of "redimed" drink, they are further processing sacred kava into a cash crop and into a rooted but inventive emblem of cultural identity. The urban kava bar itself is a ready-made central instrument of social and cultural transformation. Vanuatu's welcoming nakamal doors are wide open.


Brunton, R.

1989 the Abandoned Narcotic: Kava and Cultural Instability in Melanesia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cawte, J.

1988 Macabre Effects of a "Cult" for Kava. Medical Journal of Australia 148:545-546.

Lamboll, R.

Kava in Vanuatu: The Advent of a Cash Crop. Port Vila: Vanuatu Government Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Livestock.

Lebot, V.

1989 L'histoire du Kava Commence par sa Découverte. Journal de la Société des Océanistes 88/89:89-114.

Lebot, V., M. Merlin, and L. Lindstrom

in press Kava: The Pacific Drug. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lindstrom, L.

1987 Drugs in Western Pacific Societies: Relations of Substance. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

1990 Knowledge and Power in a South Pacific Society. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Mangnall, K.

1990 A New Direction: Vanuatu Changes Course a Decade Later. Pacific Islands Monthly 60(9):18-21.

Marshall, M.

1979 Weekend Warriors: Alcohol in a Micronesian Culture. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co.

Philibert, J.M.

1986 The Politics of Tradition: Towards a Generic Culture in Vanuatu. Mankind 16:1-12.

Rubinstein, R.

1987 The Changing Context of Card Playing in Malo, Vanuatu. Oceania 58:47-59.

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