Kava: A tradition, a business, and a problem


By Danielle Veivers

Traditionally, Kava, the aniseed-tasting drink that some people say looks like thin muddy water,  was used for ceremonial purposes in Vanuatu, but changing times have given it a new role.

It’s a sedative drink made from the root of the Kava plant and water, generally used for de-stressing, anxiety, sickness, weight loss – and because it is significantly cheaper than alcohol.

At Galaxy, a local Port Vila Kava meeting place, the price difference is clear with a bottle of local Tusker beer costing 250 Vatu (appx. A$3) and the equivalent drink, 100mL of Kava only costing 100 Vatu.

Vanuatu is one of the largest producers and consumers of Kava in the South Pacific and is known for producing a very potent variety.

Bruno is a local Kava grower from Malakula Island who spoke to QUT News about the business, pointing out that for custom reasons, people from his area normally did not use surnames.

Local Kava grower Bruno drinking Kava at Galaxy Nakamal. Photo by Jane Mahoney

Local Kava grower Bruno drinking Kava at Galaxy Nakamal. Photo by Jane Mahoney

“There are many Kava growers in Vanuatu, and Kava growth is considered a big business here”, he said. “We usually wait about four years before harvesting the plant. We then chop up the root, grind it up and soak it in water. Finally, we sift the Kava so that only the juice is left.”

Yapese, son of the Matangi tribe’s Chief and manager of the Galaxy Nakamal, says traditionally Kava was only consumed by tribal elders and was drunk for ceremonial purposes.

Yapese at the Galaxy Nakamal.

Yapese at the Galaxy Nakamal. Photo by Jane Mahoney

“Kava is meant to be an occasional drink and in my tribe it is drunk after solving problems and to connect with the spirits,” he says.

“Only the elders drink this drink because Kava makes you weak and the young members of the tribe are meant to be warriors,” Yapese says. At the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, the guide Edgar Hinge also says Kava holds strong cultural significance.

“Culturally it is a peaceful drink and if you overtake Kava it becomes a sin but it is always a drink that is welcoming and used for reconciliation,” he says.

This cultural significance is still upheld in remote village communities, but Kava also has become a recreational drink, in the capital city Port Vila, and many other small towns or villages.

Tour Guide Edgar Hinge sharing cultural knowledge. Photo by Jane Mahoney

Tour Guide Edgar Hinge sharing cultural knowledge. Photo by Jane Mahoney

The legal drinking age for Kava in Vanuatu is 18 but this is rarely policed and often teenagers as young as 14 drink Kava in Port Vila.

Some people go down to the Kava bar for nightly sessions – a trend that is causing some worry, because of the cost, and the likely bad impacts on health. Mr Hinge says while traditionally Kava was a drink for male elders and Chiefs, women can now freely drink it in urban areas.

“Now Kava is no longer drunk for cultural purposes but for commercial business purposes and this change is why teenagers and women are now allowed to drink it,” he says.

Producing and selling Kava is now a key industry – a core reason why daily consumption is allowed, or even encouraged in urban areas.

“Kava is the only way that some communities can make money and drinking Kava shouldn’t be limited because then these villages couldn’t make a living,” Mr Yapese says, at the bar.

Kava was traditionally consumed ceremonially by males

Kava was traditionally consumed ceremonially by males.

Even supporters of the trade do admit that overusing the drink can cause problems, especially within the youth community.

To Edgar Hinge, Kava dependency has contributed to youth unemployment.

“It is a problem with people overusing Kava because when they drink too much they become creative and say that they will achieve all these things,” he says.

“But the next day they don’t remember and they achieve nothing because Kava has affected their thoughts.”

The side effects of Kava has caused some countries to ban Kava imports, but Germany’s existing ban has now been lifted with a recent court ruling – good news for the Vanuatu Kava industry looking for exports.

Kava imports are strictly controlled in Australia. A licence to import controlled substances and an import permit for each consignment of Kava must be obtained from the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Passengers over 18 entering Australia can bring up to two kilograms of Kava without a licence or permit in their personal baggage.