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The Kava Culture of Micronesia

The medicinal and recreational drink known and loved as kava has been nurtured within a wide range of traditional cultures in the Pacific Ocean.  One of these is Micronesia, a vast archipelago of 2,100 islands covering over a thousand square miles in the Western Pacific Ocean.  Micronesia can be better thought of as a cultural region rather than a single country or culture.  There are six separate sovereign states that lay claim to the islands of Micronesia.  These island nations comprise numerous indigenous groups with their own languages and traditions.

One of the islands where the kava culture is particularly vibrant is Pohnpei, a lush mountainous island and one of the four major islands of a country known as the Federated States of Micronesia.  It is a sought-after tourism destination and the country actively promotes Pohnpei’s kava culture to visitors.  Kava is traditionally cultivated by a small group of men before ceremonies and social gatherings.  This group will carefully follow a set of protocols to ensure the respectful harvesting of the plant.  They will decide which plant is ready for harvesting, then carefully dig it up to avoid damaging the roots.  The roots of the plant are then pounded, crushed, and mixed with water to produce an earthy tasting beverage that can numb the mouth.  Not all Pacific Islander cultures use the term “kava”; in Pohnpei culture, the word used is sakau.

There are elaborate rules of etiquette that govern the consumption of sakau at social gatherings.  The first and fourth bowls of kava go the guest of highest social standing; in ancient times this would have been the village chieftain.  The second bowl would be served to the guest of second highest status, and the third served to the queen.  The fifth bowl of kava is served to the person who prepared it.

Due to the increase in tourism and the associated promotion of the island’s kava culture, there has been an increase in the number of kava bars on the island.  However, it is still possible for a tourist to partake in traditional sakau ceremonies.

The consumption of sakau permeates many important rites of passage in Pohnpei society.  It is consumed at weddings, funerals, and anniversaries.  Sakau is even consumed during social interactions where forgiveness is asked for and granted.  Sakau is even intertwined with the local belief system.  According to Pohnpei mythology, kava first appeared on the island thousands of years ago when two demigod brothers seeded the islands with kava by cutting off their own skin.  This belief may explain the respect and reverence that sakau is accorded by the traditional islanders.

If you cannot make it out to far flung places like Pohnpei anytime soon, there is a closer and cheaper option.  Ohana Kava Bar, with two locations in Colorado Springs has a very laid- back atmosphere and outstanding quality kava.  All are welcome, regardless of race, culture, or background.   So, if you are ever in the Colorado Springs area, come down, pull up a chair and enjoy.  Bula!