By Cass Marrett
Like many other cultural and religious groups that hinge on social gatherings and physical closeness, those engaging in faikava have had to make some adjustments during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Since the 12th century, faikava (“to do kava”) has been a meaningful cultural exercise in the Pacific Islands. The plant can’t actually be grown in New Zealand because it’s too cold, but our rising Pacific population means the drink has become prevalent here with more than 200 groups meeting regularly for kava in Auckland and more than 20,000 drinkers nationwide.
Edmond Fehoko, a Tongan Academic at AUT and MIT says the importance of continuing this tradition during lockdown lies in maintaining connections.
“The kava I’ve been drinking is from Tonga so it allowed me to connect back to the land, the socialisation in the circle allowed me to build and maintain Tongan language fluency.
“It allowed me to build relationships with elders. It’s one of the few intergenerational spaces here in New Zealand where young people can sit down, engage and communicate with elders in a respectful and very culturally appropriate manner.”
Like many other cultural and religious groups that hinge on social gatherings and physical closeness, those engaging in faikava have had to make some adjustments during the Covid-19 lockdown. For the kava community, a major shift has been bringing some sessions online.
Apo Aporosa, a kava academic, has founded an online kava group with participants from New Zealand, Thailand, USA, Australia, Fiji, and Taiwan.
He says people should always practice kava with respect and breaking lockdown rules is not respect.
“If someone gets Covid in a kava environment, kava will get the blame, not the transmission process. We had a situation in the early 2000s where kava was mislabelled as causing liver damage in Europe and that led to the European kava ban [from 2002 - 2014] and that seriously affected the livelihoods of many of our family members in Fiji,” says Apo.
Edmond says the online kava group will create change. “Even though we may move away from level 4 I think the online platform has actually changed the thinking in our Pacific communities about ways of doing things without actually having to go face-to-face,” he says.
Even though some groups were slow to observe lockdown rules by still meeting face-to-face, Edmond is confident that kava drinkers have gotten the message.
A growing international demand for kava has boosted the economies of countries like Fiji and Vanuatu. “Particularly from Germany, Poland and more recently the US with the NFL. They see it as an alternative to alcohol and also a relaxant,” says Apo.
Apo, who teaches at the University of Waikato, is often asked by students whether other cultures using the drink is cultural appropriation.
“I feel like I can safely speak for many Fijians and other Pacific Islanders – we tend to look at it as, if you’re drinking our drink, and you’re being respectful of the kava and of each other, that’s really empowering to us,” says Apo.
“We hold onto four key values,” says Edmond. “Four golden pillars that encapsulate what a Tongan individual should look like. The importance of respect, humility, maintaining relationships, and a willing heart to do things. Each value is represented in the four legs of the kava bowl and so if one leg is missing, the kava bowl becomes unstable, so too our identity.
“It doesn’t matter what goes inside the kava bowl, but if the legs are solid and strong, it can take on anything, so too our culture as well... this whole Covid-19 lockdown, it’s going to come but we’re still holding onto our values that we truly believe in.”