Where Kava is the Drink of Choice

By Cherelle Jackson
Agence France-Presse

Kava may be one of the secrets behind the famously laidback Pacific islands lifestyle but Taulelei Uilelea claims the mildly narcotic drink can also be credited for his success in chess.

At Savalalo market on Samoa’s main island of Upolu, the regular kava circle will host at least eight people on most days, but at busy times on a Saturday there may be many as 20.

The drinkers gather on bench seats formed in a circle and are served by young men who make the brew.

“At one tala (US dollar) a seating, it ain’t bad for a day of fun,” Uilelea says.

Uilelea is also a member of the market’s chess circle and insists he always plays better after a bowl of kava. “It’s needed to take the tension away,” he says.

Kava, made from the pounded roots of the kava (piper methysticum) plant, the drink has been the focus of social and cultural life in many Pacific islands for thousands of years.

At the Salelologa market on Samoa’s other main island of Savaii, Kilisi Tiatia, 41 and a member of the kava circle there for 20 years, also values its calming effect. “It’s really about relaxing, taking it easy and then sharing stories,” he said.

Kava ceremonies are at the centre of most important cultural events on many islands.

The coronation in Apia last year of Tonga’s King Siaosi Tupou V was global news with its extravagant European pageantry, including pages in silk knee breeches, ermine capes and imperial brass music.

But for locals the ceremony that counted most was the earlier traditional kava rite in which nobles and chiefs pledged obedience to their new king around the kava bowl.

In Fiji, visitors to villages are still expected to present a bundle of kava roots to the local chief to ensure a friendly reception and hospitality.

The Melanesian nation of Vanuatu is thought to be the original home of the kava plant and it still claims to produce the best.

An Australian university study of 60 people this year found kava to be effective in treating anxiety.

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