Can kava mana be exported?

Anau Mesui Henry is co-owner of Four Shells Kava Lounge in Auckland, Aotearoa. Picture: INSTAGRAM: @CULTURESOFOBLIVION

Kava is the ancient drink of Pacific people. Surrounded in custom, and steeped in thousands of years of tradition, it is considered a ‘life source’ for many.

‘Anau Mesui Henry describes kava as ‘being alive’, that you’re honouring it when you’re drinking it ‘the proper way’.

“When my family moved to Aotearoa, my mum and dad … didn’t speak the language,” she told Culture Compass.

“They faced different cultural norms and social constructs and in order to look after the family, my parents just went back to kava, that’s what they knew,” she said.

This meant frequent trips to Tonga growing up, to plant and harvest kava.

“We had a kava pounding machine … And it was their way of looking after the family.”

Today Anau runs a dedicated kava lounge in Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand with her husband Todd. When she reflects on those early family days, she sees her parents’ efforts through a new lens.

“Now I’m like, ‘oh, they are business people’ but they never saw themselves as that. They were just immigrants trying to make sure their family was looked after.”

The ceremonial drink of the Pacific

Steeped in ritual and ceremony, Pacific people have been using kava for thousands of years. Kava (or Piper methysticum) is a native plant to the Pacific islands.

It’s a non-alcoholic drink with sedative effects, made by drying and crushing the roots, then adding water.

Tanuvasa Semy Siakimotu is a director at the International Capacity Development Section in the Australian Agriculture Department.

He says there are opportunities for Pacific kava farmers as global demand grows.

“It’s important to know that wherever Pacific island people and communities reside overseas, our products such as kava, taro, cassava and yams also follow,” he told Culture Compass.

“I think kava by far is the one that is providing the economic benefits to the families and creating opportunities for the youth as well.”

In recent years, kava bars have popped up in the US, from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado through to New York. Kava’s drinking powder has also made it onto supermarket shelves in Australia.

Mr Siakimotu describes kava as ‘an alternative that doesn’t create other problems.’

“People are looking for healthy alternatives. And I think kava can be that for a lot of people.

“There’s over 300 kava bars that have opened up in the US and more to come.

“I think people are looking for alternatives to address some of the stresses that they’re going through, they’re facing in life,” he said.

“Hopefully, more people can be introduced to kava, we’d like to call it the antidote to a stressful world at the moment,” he said.

The mana of kava

But as businesses identify commercial opportunities, trialling new flavours and more kava bars open around the globe, there is potential for its cultural significance to be watered down in the process.

“You need to honour the product that you’re selling,” ‘Anau said.

“If it’s just a gimmick, if it’s just purely commercial, and you don’t really care about the culture, you know, that speaks for itself. “You take away the mana of kava when you don’t understand what it is, this product that you’re selling.” ‘Anau says she’s all for more business owners in the kava market, but it comes down to having the right intention.

“I think the more of us from the Moana, owning that space here in Aotearoa, the better.” And when it comes to drinking kava, she has a preferred method.

“I’m pretty biased, the best way is the traditional cold water method,” she said. “Water, kava — that’s it. Anything outside of that, I don’t even know what you’re drinking.

“There’s a connection to it, you’re drinking it with other people, you’re creating meaningful conversations, you’re creating meaningful relationships.

“Kava is alive, that’s how I see it. It’s a living thing in my perspective. So, you’re honouring it when you’re having that proper drinking of the kava.”

• SEIULI SALAMASINA VON REICHE holds a high chief title from her home country of Samoa.

• DINAH LEWIS BOUCHER is a digital journalist for ABC News. The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.

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