Kava revival concept starts interesting discussion online

Monday 11 July 2016 | Published in Local


Kava revival concept starts interesting discussion online
A student at Richmond Methodist High School in Kadavu, Fiji, presents a freshly-harvested kava plant as part of the opening of the schools' fundraising event. PHOTO: Apo Aporosa 16070817

IT IS encouraging when people discuss topics you are passionate about. And that was the primary goal of my recent feature in CI News,“Reclaiming the ‘real’ Rarotongan culture.”

I am both passionate about and proud of my Pasifika ancestry and the role kava plays in this, aided by the respect based values that underpins the use of kava.

And I would be misleading if I wasn’t honest in saying I would love to see kava re-established back into Te Ao Maohi (Rarotonga and its greater island grouping), culture to reflect “a unique island experience that models itself on the practices and traditions of the tumunu culture.”

But I also understand that this needs to be a Te Ao Maohi decision. So, for me, the fact that the article generated talanoa is positive as this leads to notions of empowerment, culture continuity and self-determination, is great.

This is a follow-up to that article in which pre-colonial Te Ao Maohi kava-culture was discussed to support local desires to reclaim traditional cultural and identity expressions as part of asserting nationalism.

With the exception of a single comment, observations on several social media sites regarding the article have been positive.

Comments included one by “Liam,” who said he had been “wondering whether we were going to revive this (kava) aspect of our culture.”

“April” said she “would like to see the traditional kava revived” in Te Ao Maohi; and Graeme suggested “the time to act is now and revive the kava culture.

Terry Rangi supported a kava comeback, but also observed that since bush beer had been a part of tumunu culture for the past 166 years, it should not be completely abandoned as it comprises recent (post-colonial) Te Ao Maohi identity.

Terry makes a valid point, one which echoes identity expert Stuart Hall, who stated identities are not fixed, rather they are “constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew.”

While not wanting to dismiss Terry’s comment concerning bush beer, a frequently-expressed concern in comments about the article was the effects of alcohol use on socio-cultural harmony, with Thomas Wynne pointing out that “the effects of kava pale in comparison to the damage done by bush beer in our Atuian community.”

These are all great observations, some of which I will pick up on shortly. But first, we must acknowledge the sole critic of the article.

“William” was most concerned that the article was based on “quarter-truths,” motivated by a desire to turn “young people into culture-cultists with chips on their shoulders.”

He adds more, but first let’s consider the word “culture-cultist” in light of the kava culture.

A search of internet dictionaries reveals that strictly, ‘culture-cultist’ is not a word. That does not mean we cannot define this term by drawing on “culture” and “cult,” which would suggest William’s “culture-cultist” means a group of people who share either a philosophical, religious, or cultural identity, who often exist on the margins of society, and who could also be “exploitative” towards fellow “culture-cultist” members.

I partly agree with this when it comes to the kava culture. Those who share a common ethnic and cultural identity associated with kava and are passionate about this, share a union that does not tend to conform with Eurocentric ideals.

This, therefore, puts us at the margins of the dominant Eurocentric society. However, as we have opened up about our culture to others and have invited them in to enjoy it alongside us, something that is happening in New Zealand and others areas of the Pacific where non-Pasifikans have joined our kava venues and learnt the respect-based ethos that accompanies this cultural expression: They have subsequently gone away and formed their own kava drinking venues which they in turn inviting us into.

This is the respect-based, relationship-enhancing aspect that underpins the kava culture, but one that cannot operate appropriately or successfully when people are being exploited or disrespected.

So, while we may share a common ethnic and cultural identity associated with kava, to then exploit others (in the manner of William’s “culture-cultist”) would counter the respect ethos that drives, and is critical to, the traditional use of kava and its culture.

William is also concerned that those who sit around drinking kava, in addition to getting “chips on their shoulders,” will turn into zombies capable of little more than “watching paint dry.”

This is an area I have studied; kava use and impacts to productivity, so it is worth discussing. I will do this after first addressing the matter of kava as a “drug,” to give perspective.

Regardless of kava’s significance to Pasifika cultural practice and identity as a “cultural keystone species” together with the potential this also has to Te Ao Maohi cultural identity expression and nationalism, it must be acknowledged that kava is a “drug.”

Like any drug, whether coffee, alcohol or even Panadol, excessive use can have negative consequences. As drug expert Mike Jay explains, people have been using drugs for millennia for spiritual, medicinal and social reasons.

He adds that when a drug is prohibited or restricted, it is not long before it is replaced with another (termed “substance switch”) more harmful drug substance. Additionally, the banned drug quickly becomes a profitable ‘underground’ commodity within the illegal “black-market.”

While Te Ao Maohi does not have a black market kava economy or “kava-Mafia,” it did experience “substance switch” to bush beer in the early colonial period.

Bush beer and the anti-social behaviour and violence that can accompany it was frequently mentioned in commentary following my first article. Te Ao Maohi are not alone in these concerns regarding alcoholic beverages such as bush beer.

I personally have attended kava functions most New Year’s Eves and have attended several thousand kava sessions over many years, and I can confirm that there has not been a single incident, ever, in which a kava user at any of these events has been taken to hospital, required medical attention, or been involved in a fight or any type of aggression.

This is because kava does not cause “drunkenness,” euphoria or inhibition like alcohol and many other substances. With kava having a calming effect that allows for clear-minded discussion, and with Mike Jay saying that people are going to use drugs regardless, is it not better that we offer and promote a drug substance in Te Ao Maohi that has cultural significance, is associated with respect and facilitates quality discussion to aid cultural revitalisation?

But what about William’s concern that kava leads to “zombie-ization” and a fascination with watching “paint dry,” and causing impacts to productivity?

In my doctoral studies I looked at kava hangover among school teachers to identify whether kava caused concentration impairment and negatively impacts the ability of teachers to educate their students.

Using cognitive tests, I found a 16.5 per cent deficit in (brain) processing speed when comparing kava drinkers with non-drinkers. It is not yet fully understood how much of this effect was kava and how much was a lack of sleep due to late hour that kava sessions typically finish. Additionally, while this 16.5 per cent may appear concerning, most teachers reported feeling vastly more alert and healthy when compared with an alcohol hangover.

This is not surprising considering a recent report in The Atlantic which stated alcohol hangover cost the USA over $200 billion, yes two hundred billion dollars, in lost productivity in 2010. The minimal impact from kava may surprise some and was part of a discussion I had with the manager of a large hotel chain when I was on Rarotonga last month.

The manager had complained to me that when their (Fijian) staff consumed kava, they appeared less productive the following day than when hung-over on alcohol. That conversation occurred at about midday.

I say this because I explained to this manager that I had consumed kava for just over 12 hours the previous night with some Fijian friends at Arorangi; we had finished drinking kava at 2.30am. I added that I had got up at 7.30am that morning (after that lengthy kava session), had read an academic journal article and written part of a publication I was working on.

Moreover, I asked the manager, whether I looked like her staff who stated they had been drinking kava the previous night. She replied “no,” and I suggested that the staff had most probably not told the complete story: that they had no doubt failed to tell the manager that after the kava had finished (and the mixing utensils been put away to maintain a semblance of cultural compliance), they had “washed-down,” consumed alcohol.

I explained that it was the mixing of the two substances that had led to their excessive impairment. Then, later that night I drank kava with some of the workers from the same resort who admitted they occasionally “washed-down,” as kava was often hard to obtain on Rarotonga, therefore kava sessions were often cut short.

This raises questions about whether kava actually leads to a zombie-like state and a fascination with watching paint dry. I know many very successful kava drinkers, from village farmers to medical practitioners. The reality is, lazy people are lazy regardless of whether they have consumed kava. It is a shame that kava has been singled out as the cause of this.

So, while on the issue of kava negatives, it’s worth considering another common criticism regarding kava. This is complaints from wives that kava causes husbands to stay out until late, taking them away from their family responsibilities.

This is a subject I have spoken to many men and the young Pasifikans at kava venues. Kava does not make us abandon our families and forsake our responsibilities, it’s “personal choice” that does this. In fact, researchers agree that kava is not physically addictive, meaning we don’t pursue kava to elevate cravings, therefore removing (potential) blame on kava.

As I tell the men, I drink kava with with, my wife does not blame kava when I repeatedly go out, she rightfully blames my poor choice. Additionally, I tell kava-drinking men that we must act responsibly, which is in line with our Pasifika respect value system, and that we must stop making poor choices that reflect badly upon our cultural icon of identity and respect.

Another point raised in feedback to my original article was the possible “merging” of the bush-beer and kava cultures within the same tumunu. Again, I am in no position to tell Te Ao Maohi how to operate tumunu or construct their culture; but what I can do is explain how many Pasifikans view the combined use of kava and alcohol.

Kava is considered to be both a possessent and transferrent of mana, tied into traditional concepts of vanua/whenua, unity and peace, aided by quiet relaxed clearheaded affects that allow disagreements and themes to be wrestled and discussed without tension.

Alcohol is considered to be the opposite of this, with its consumption often resulting in loud, raucous, and at times argumentative and violent behaviour. Therefore, alcohol-related behaviours are deemed anti-Pasifika and anti-traditional as they are opposed to our respect based values system of vakaturaga (Fiji), anga fakaTonga (Tonga) and fa’aSamoa/tautua faatamalii (Samoa). These opposing behaviours are the dominant reason why many Pasifikans considered it inappropriate to have kava and alcohol within the same venue.

Then there is the safety aspect. Kava potentiates, increases the effects of alcohol and therefore the likelihood of antisocial behaviour leading to people getting hurt. Further, there is concern that the mixing of kava and alcohol may cause hepatotoxicity (liver damage). Some kava-using Pasifikans believe that this hepatotoxicity is deliberately caused by the mana in kava to show that they should not be mixed.

Finally, why is culture and the re-engagement of practices such as kava even important? Governments, led in part by New Zealand’s Ministry of Social Development (following lobbying and work with Māori and academics), are increasingly coming to understand the importance of culture as being a contribution (as opposed to an inhibitor) to national development processes.

We are gradually seeing governments appreciate that the former modernisation/enlightenment agenda, or that which sought colonised societies (such as Te Ao Maohi) to shift away from supposed “primitive” ideologies of subsistence living, reciprocity, indigenous substance use including kava, and spirituality based on “crude myths,” all of which were argued to limit individuality and “economic initiative,” have not worked.

There is now an understanding that the modernisation/Enlightenment agenda has actually led to increased levels of dysfunction in many of these former colonies. A change is now happening with governments increasingly supporting culture and cultural continuance, as this is recognised as adding to notions of empowerment, supporting collectivism which decreases antisocial behaviour through accountability, and encouraging internal support systems that reduce the pressure on social services, all of which adds to improved health and wellbeing.

Changes in education are a clear example of this governmental level anti-culture mindset change. Many non-European cultures have for some time been criticised regarding their high rates of academic failure, struggling to achieve within the one-size-fits-all Eurocentric teaching system dominated by “whitestream” teaching approaches.

However, more recently, some of those same “failing” cultures/ethnicities have opened their own schools and based education delivery on their own language, traditions, culture, values and traditional concepts of learning, and are seeing remarkable change and academic achievement.

Kaupapa Māori schools in Aotearoa New Zealand are a leading example of this, with a recent report stating that these traditional learning environments are “outshining private schools and bucking national trends” (Waikato Times, 2013).

This is not isolated to New Zealand. Observations of academic increase in Afro-Americans charter-schools has led commentators to acknowledge that higher performance in education is closely linked with empowerment through cultural identity and affirmation.

That is why I like the kava culture. Underpinned and sitting on top of Pasifika respect behaviours together with cultural continuance, it is something we encourage among the young people who attend kava environments here in Aotearoa New Zealand. We use this as a “cultural classroom” to quote my Tongan mate, Edmund Fehoko.

Edmund’s research looks at faikava venues as places where respect and integrity attitudes are taught to young attendees. What Edmund’s research shows, is that young Tongans in South Auckland who attend faikava venues are less likely to involve themselves in alcohol use and therefore are less likely to engage in anti-social behaviour and violence, together with decreased criminality and gang involvement.

This all seems like a win-win situation to me: kava not only provides us with environments to re-engage culture through practice and clear-headed discussion, it also provides a “cultural classroom” to teach language, songs and respect values, all of which lead to greater notions of empowerment.

If that is the quality of a “culture-cultist” (naturally without exploiting others), I would argue we need more culture-cultists.

There are plenty of alcohol bars in Te Ao Maohi if that’s the kind of Eurocentrical-influenced socialisation people wish to pursue. If, though, people really want a “unique island experience that models itself on the practices and traditions of the tumunu culture,” one that meets the needs of cultural continuance as is being sought by many Te Ao Maohi, all of which will lead to increased notions of empowerment, positive sociocultural enhancement and improved levels of health and wellbeing, then let’s continue to talanoa about the revitalisation of the kava culture.

Me ngaro poina koe i taau peu, ka puapinga kore koe!