The root of happiness?

Kava culture in Vanuatu

I gulped down the contents of my coconut shell and smiled woozily at the barman. The drink had the colour and consistency of muddy water, and its flavour was foul. Tipping the sludge from the bottom of the drink discreetly onto the floor, I plonked the now-empty coconut shell down on the counter. My eyes watered, and my face contorted involuntarily into an expression of revulsion. The barman pretended politely not to notice, busying himself with the task of rinsing my shell in the bucket of brown water beside him, ready for the next customer.

I scanned the gloomy bar, lit only by a single paraffin lamp, in search of something with which to take the taste away. The barman nodded towards a plate of sliced papaya, which someone had cut earlier from the tree growing outside. Ordinarily I loathe papaya, and I suspected that the large rat I'd spotted lurking in this corner earlier had already sampled the fruit, but anything was better than the taste that lingered in my mouth. I picked up one of the mushy yellow slices and munched on it gratefully.

Stooping to avoid hitting my head on the roof - a low, sloping structure thatched with dried palm leaves - I sat down on one of the benches that ran along either side of the hut. Close to my head, in the shadowy crevices where the edge of the roof met the wooden walls, lurked mosquitoes - hopefully not the malaria-carrying kind. Now and then one would emerge from the darkness and whine into my ear. The only others sounds came from the crickets whirring outside, and the hushed conversation of a couple of villagers on the bench opposite.

I could feel a dry numbness around my lips and tongue: the drink was beginning to have its effect. Tonight's kava seemed to be a particularly intense brew. Different kinds of kava are drunk on many islands in the Pacific, but here on Pentecost - a dark, mountainous island forming part of the archipelago of Vanuatu - the local variety was notorious for its potency.

Kava is made from the narcotic roots of the South Sea Pepper Plant (Piper methysticum), an innocent-looking shrub that thrives in the little garden plots that the villagers hack out of tropical mountainsides. The yellowish roots are mashed up with a hand-operated grinder, then strained into water to produce the intoxicating liquid that the men of the village gather after sunset to drink. It is only the men who drink it: for women living in traditional areas of Vanuatu, kava-drinking is one of the many things in life that are "taboo", a Melanesian word so commonly used that it has even entered the vocabulary of mainstream English. The drink is anaesthetic rather than alcoholic, inducing a sleepy sense of peacefulness and relaxation. Kava bars are calm, contemplative places, in obvious to the atmosphere of loud recklessness that often accompanies alcohol. It is sometimes claimed that Vanuatu's friendly culture and low crime rate result from the widespread drinking of kava in place of alcoholic drinks. Some of the country's churches disapprove of kava, remonstrating that men should be spending their time and money at home with their families rather than down at the bar. However, in general they tolerate the habit, perhaps recognising that it is the lesser of two evils.

I rested my head on my hands and stared light-headedly at the floor, which was covered with a pale shingle of old coral fragments that some poor guy had hauled up the hill from the beach. (There are no cranes or bulldozers on Pentecost: construction is done the old-fashioned way, by sweaty villagers labouring in the tropical heat, with occasional help from one of the island's rattling bunch of pick-up trucks.) A feeling of drug-induced happiness spread through me.

A kava bar on Pentecost
The local drinking hole

A thickly-accented voice hissed my name, and I looked over to see one of the villagers standing at the bar, gesturing to me to come and drink with him. I wasn't sure that I was ready for a second drink, but I stood up, realising as I did so how stoned I already was, and accepted the coconut shell with a smile of gratitude. I took a grimy swig and put the shell down. Tradition dictates that each shell is drunk in one go, with any remaining liquid being thrown away. The sensation of drinking the kava is too revolting to be prolonged unnecessarily.

"Thank you," I choked. The upwelling of nausea brought on by the repulsive liquid was stronger this time. I suppressed the feeling: if I staggered outside to vomit in the bushes I would not only embarrass myself, but would get the awful taste right back again. I realised that I would need to pace myself in order to survive the night. Later I would buy a drink for the villager, and probably for the other man who was drinking with him, who might then buy one for me. That would be four shells - more than enough for the evening. At a mere 50 vatu (£0.25) a shell, I had no objection to buying drinks for people; the problem was that I would be obliged to drink with them. Once upon a time, a man would only have been expected to drink three or four shells of kava before retiring to bed. However, in a depressing imitation of Western culture, many of today's young islanders revel in drinking themselves into oblivion. Asking someone how much they can drink is an easy way to start a conversation in a kava bar, and is likely to get an enthusiastic and boastful response. Elderly chiefs, meanwhile, lament that people do not respect the kava the way their ancestors did.

It was definitely not to try and impress the locals with my drinking abilities that I began spending my evenings on Pentecost Island down at the kava bar; nor was it for the substance's effect (although after a while I did begin to take a certain pleasure in the feeling of calmness that the drug created). It was because kava drinking provided an opportunity to get to know the islanders and gain an unobstructed view into the inner life of a Melanesian village. Sometimes other drinkers would sit down next to me and chat in slow whispers. They were keen to tell me about their native island, and curious to hear about mine. At other times I would simply sit on the bench and listen to the general conversation. Men from the local village spoke amongst themselves in one of Pentecost's five native languages, but conversations involving visitors to the village (including me) took place in the peculiar dialect of Pidgin English that is Melanesia's lingua franca.

I took in the gossip of the day: the prized pig that had escaped its enclosure and spent the afternoon running around the mountainside with a group of villagers in pursuit; the pilot who had risked a landing on Pentecost's waterlogged airfield despite the rainy conditions; the school cook who was in disgrace after refusing a loaf of bread to the village chief. Some of the stories were comic, some were tragic. Some were enlightening, and some were inexplicable. Occasionally there were stories of sorcercy: the sudden death or illness of someone young and previously in good health, which must of course have been caused by a curse placed on the unfortunate victim by one of his enemies. Magic was a fact of life on these islands, and its power was described to me at great length by the islanders. To them I was a Muggle, and could never be expected to believe in such things ("poor white man, he has no understanding of our magic"), yet I nodded and listened with fascination.

As the evening came to an end, and the bucket of kava behind the bar grew empty, I said goodnight to my drinking companions and left. One side-effect of kava is to render the eyes unusually sensitive to light, and I marvelled at the brightness of the southern constellations as I meandered along the dirt road through the jungle, towards the house in which I was staying. I was ready for a deep night's sleep.


It is not merely in traditional corners of Vanuatu that kava remains popular. The country's capital, Port Vila - a busy neo-colonial town serving as a plush holiday destination and offshore financial centre - has over a hundred kava bars. Many of these consist of little more than wooden shacks in suburban driveways, their presence advertised by coloured lanterns at the gate. Some are run by women - a sign of the cultural chasm that has opened up between modern, urban Vanuatu, and the 'real' Vanuatu of earthy villages and ancient ways of life. In traditional Vanuatu, kava-drinking was such a sacred male custom that in pre-Christian days a woman might have been put to death simply for witnessing the drink being made.

Port Vila
Port Vila

If kava culture can thrive amid the modernity of twenty-first century Port Vila, could it catch on elsewhere in the world? The people of Vanuatu - perceiving a lucrative export market for their narcotic crop - often express their hope that it will only be a matter of time before Western society embraces its benefits. Extracts of kava are already widely used across the world as a natural relaxant in herbal medicines. However, the substance's revolting flavour - together with the fact that Western countries have some pretty strong taboos of their own when it comes to exotic drugs - will probably ensure that kava-drinking never becomes popular beyond the insular confines of the South Pacific. To make matters worse, there have been reports of liver damage in those taking herbal medicines containing kava. These reports were later discredited, but not before they led some countries, including Britain, to ban the sale of kava products.

The people of Vanuatu are quick to dismiss foreigners' concerns over the safety of their national drink. Kava comes in over forty different varieties, they point out, and even if 'medicinal kava' is harmful in large doses, the milder strains used in drinking are consumed every day by a large proportion of the country's population with no obvious health consequences. Even as a medicine, the risks associated with kava are certainly no worse than those associated with alternative drugs such as Xanax and Valium. However, these non-herbal medicines enjoy the backing of powerful pharmaceutical companies, whilst kava does not.

In parts of Australia, the nearest big country to Vanuatu, kava found eager drinkers among the aboriginal population. Here it was initially encouraged, in the hope that it would provide a less damaging alternative to alcohol. Unfortunately, one little-reported side effect of kava is that even a small amount leaves the drinker extremely disinclined to do anything that feels like work. Another side-effect is loss of appetite: expatriate Frenchwomen in Port Vila reportedly use kava as a slimming drug. Kava's traditional users in Vanuatu are well aware of these problems, and know how to mitigate them. Out on the islands, kava-drinking is strictly an evening activity, except on special occasions, and drinkers usually make an effort to eat properly afterwards, even if they aren't particularly hungry. Too many aboriginal users, it seems, did not follow these principles, and the drug led them to neglect food and neglect their families. Such problems eventually drove the Australian government to ban large-scale kava imports, attacking the symptoms of aboriginal poverty being somewhat easier than attacking the cause. However, Australian tourists visiting Port Vila (virtually none of whom, needless to say, are aboriginal) are still allowed to take back small amounts of powdered kava roots for personal use.

I took a supply home to Britain, where I prepared a bowlful of the drink to share with some friends at a party. Their response was less than enthusiastic. Some reacted as though I were attempting to poison them, refusing to touch the noxious-looking liquid unless I drank first. I duly did so, but found the experience a disappointing one. In Vanuatu, kava had been a doorway into an ancient and intriguing culture. In Britain, it was nothing more than a soporific and unpleasant-tasting drug. Kava-drinking was one of those travel experiences that can never properly be shared with people back home. I could tell stories, I could take photographs, and I could bring back narcotic souvenirs, yet nothing would convey the true wonder of sitting with the islanders in their lamp-lit wooden hut, enveloped in the magic of a South Pacific night.


Vanuatu Kava Store


Full diaries of my travels in the Pacific


© Andrew Gray, 2005-2007