Cup O’Kava

Ruminations on a Social Ritual

The kava bowl, by Stüssi, with Creative Commons licenceProximity is rarely a good measure of learning. We might spend countless days surrounded by those more knowledgeable than us, but never know what they’ve learned. I spent most of my life living on the eastern coast of Australia without the slightest hint that the social rituals of the Pacific islands, geographically my near neighbours, could teach me something I needed to know. But yesterday in distant Hong Kong I learned a thing or two, over a bowl of Kava.

For those of you who don’t know much about the subject, Kava is a plant in the pepper family, and its roots are ground, mixed with water and drunk as a slight soporific. In other words, it makes you a little sleepy, but it mainly works as a muscle relaxant. Unlike alcohol or other drugs, it doesn’t interfere with perceptions and doesn’t promote aggression. Introduced to indigenous communities in Australia’s Northern Territory over the last decade or so, the local government has created a good deal of noise about Kava’s supposed dangers, but the arguments are more steeped in anecdotes than scientific evidence.

The point about Kava really isn’t its use as a drug – you could get more stimulation smoking a cigarette. And unlike drinking alcohol with friends, drinking Kava doesn’t split everyone off into isolated worlds with their attendant delusions. Kava isn’t about the individual – it’s about sharing something as part of a ritual.

So yesterday I shared a bowl of Kava with a group of friends, one of whom is a New Zealander of partial Samoan heritage and another having just returned from working on aid projects in Micronesia. Oh yes, and they just so happen to be husband and wife. We passed their Kava bowl around, with each person dipping a smaller bowl, much more like a cup, while the next person held the main bowl. Before each person drank, always with two hands holding the cup, the rest of us clapped together once. And so it went, around the table.

What, you might wonder, could this achieve? A heightened sense of trust for a start, with the bowl passing from hand to mouth to hand again unwashed, which few people would ever do over a coffee or a beer. But that’s only part of the benefit to be had, because the pass-and-help process overtakes all else.

We talked the sort of talk that friends do, ranging from the inconsequential to the monumental, but instead of descending into chit-chat as we might have, the ritual focused us, ensuring that we each performed our role, that we took care to notice what the others were doing. Amongst us we have communalists, non-conformists and two of the most aggressive individualists you could ever meet, but what we did reminded us why we get together and what it is that we share even when we’re apart.

Corporativa al atardecer - Flickr Meeting at Tusk, by Voj, with Creative Commons licence“We’re family”, someone mentioned, and although we come from very different countries with vastly different upbringings and expectations, she was correct, by and large. For a day we stopped talking about injustice and what we’re doing to change all that, and thought about ourselves, together with the same aspirations because underneath the bluster we’re really all the same type of person. We learned to live each other’s lives a little, the Pacific island way.

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