Experiencing Fiji: Kava and a Whale’s Tooth

Fiji certainly lives up to it’s reputation:  Beautiful ocean views, cooling sea breezes, swaying palms. And friendly, delightful people who call out “Bula” every time they see you.

At this, my first visit to this tropical paradise, I had the privilege of being the honored guest at a Kava ceremony.

I didn’t have the customary island dress (I packed light), but the only real requirement was modest dress, so I passed.

A wonderful man was assigned to represent me through the ceremony—they spoke in Fijian—and he kept me outside the room while the leaders prepared the Kava and others set up my place to sit—on a beautiful tapa cloth which was given to me afterwards.  He also gave me instructions for my responses, but I did not remember them all.

Kava or Yaqona is a traditional drink in Fiji, made from root of the pepper tree.  It is drunk widely and often throughout the island, providing a relaxed feeling.  But it is also the centerpiece of a ceremony for welcoming guests, negotiating differences or uniting peoples in friendship and marriage.

The chief or head of the ceremony mixes the powdered root with water in a large hardwood bowl, called a Tanoa, straining the root through a cloth to keep out the grit. When it is ready, he claps with cupped hands to make a hollow "pop" sound.

The Kava was already prepared when I was taken in, and they were so kind to provide a chair so I didn’t have to sit on the floor. (Getting up from the floor is not a graceful sight for me anymore.)

The leader spoke many words I didn’t understand, but my representative responded appropriately for me.  Then the Kava was scooped from the large bowl into a bilo, a small bowl made from half of a coconut, and offered to me. I believe I was supposed to clap three times and say “Bula.”  I remembered the Bula, but not the clapping.

I drank it all down, which is required.  I had heard varying stories on the taste, the most common being river water.  It was a little peppery, not unpleasant, but surely an acquired taste to replace coffee or tea as your daily beverage.  Alas, I neglected to clap three times after finishing my bowlful,but they seemed to accept my efforts anyway.

Then came the greatest honor.  I was presented with a whale’s tooth.  Whale teeth are very protected and valued.    They are given by a man seeking the hand of a bride and for honored guests.  I certainly do not feel worthy of such a gift, but am truly grateful.  I expressed that gratitude to the people there, and gave each a small gift.

Finally I and other guests were surprised with another tradition:  baby powder was rubbed on our faces and showered over us.  It was startling, but fun.


One of the best parts of my job is getting to know sisters and brothers from many lands and cultures.  I have never experienced such a ceremony or been honored in such a way before.  I always am amazed at the faith, joy and contentment of the people of God all over the world—and the grace and graciousness they always extend to me.

What about you?  How have you experienced another culture?