Aloha and Happy New Year from the Kava Guru! As we head into the first month of 2015, I thought this might be an excellent time to highlight some interesting “firsts” in the kava world. A recent news piece I’d like to share with you covered the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Fiji—the first Indian PM to visit Fiji in over 30 years. And how did Fiji locals greet Mr. Modi after so much time? With a kava ceremony, of course!
The Fiji Islands are home to an ethnically diverse population of about 827,000 people. That includes about 37% percent Indo-Fijians, people of primary Indian or mixed Indian and Fijian descent. Kava is consumed across cultures in Fiji: among Fiji’s native iTaukei people, Indo-Fijians, and other ethnic minorities. Despite its large Indian population, until Modi’s visit it had been 33 years since then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi paid a diplomatic visit to Fiji in the 1980’s. Narendra Modi visited Fiji as part of a diplomatic tour that also included stopovers in Myanmar and Australia.
According to reports, Modi was welcomed in Suva by indigenous iTaukei men in traditional grass skirts, who danced and sang, then honored him with a kava ceremony. He apparently had been advised by his aides in the proper way to drink kava, and did not hesitate when the bilo was offered him. Modi downed it in one gulp, to the accompaniment of much hand clapping by the men of Sorokoba village who had administered the ceremony. Refusing kava is seen as an insult in Fiji (and, I can tell you, in other South Pacific societies as well), so Modi’s smooth performance was diplomatically shrewd and sets a good example for other heads of state. Chinese president Xi Jinping, visiting two days after Modi, was also honored with a kava ceremony by the men of Nakorotubu village. The story offered no word on how he fared.
However, in an aside the article mentioned that Modi performed better than Prince Charles of Wales on his diplomatic visit to the village of Viseisei in 2005. The Prince did not refuse a small sip of kava but reportedly grimaced at its admittedly pungent taste. Though his aides were suitably circumspect as to whether Prince Charles experienced any effects from the brew, they did say he was visibly relaxed on the flight home!
Perhaps Modi’s courtesy is even more to be appreciated considering the way the article described kava, as a “narcotic” that can fuddle brainwaves and cause “fuzzyheadedness”. Of course, anyone reasonably knowledgeable about kava knows it is not actually a narcotic; nor does kava impair reaction time, judgment, or cognition as it performs its wonderful relaxing ministrations.
The taste of kava also received less than complementary words: one source described it as similar to a “cocktail of dirty washing water garnished with old socks”. With that kind of primer, I’m a little amazed Modi decided to stop by Fiji at all! However, I and the Fijian kava community are certainly glad he did. Let’s hope the Indian PM’s visit signals a renewed era of diplomatic relations between Fiji and India once again!
“Narendra Modi Gulps an Intoxicating Drink Politely”. NDTV Food. Last modified December 8th, 2014. http://cooks.ndtv.com/article/show/narendra-modi-gulps-an-intoxicating-drink-politely-631651.
“When Modi Quaffed a Drink to India-Fiji Friendship”. 5 Dariya News. Last modified December 6th, 2014. http://www.5dariyanews.com/news/60697-When-Modi-quaffed-a-drink-to-India-Fiji-friendship.
“For India-Fiji Friendship, PM Modi Downed a Drink Prince Charles Had Balked At”. NDTV.com. Last modified December 6th, 2014. http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/for-india-fiji-friendship-pm-modi-downed-a-drink-prince-charles-had-balked-at-630849.