Taveuni: Kava with a K and the Fijian gender spectrum.

27th May, 2017 – 7th June, 2017

“There is very little ‘of course’ when it comes to custom.” Janet Kagan, Uhura’s Song

Two weeks after docking at Savusavu port we boarded the (once) great Lomaviti Princess III once again and headed to our most remote destination of Taveuni, an island further West. After 5 hours on board, we left the ship and got in a taxi with our driver Jesh. As we set off along the coastal road to our homestay at the southern tip of Tavenui in a village called Vuna, we were all unaware of the twist that was waiting for us when we arrived. One hour later along a dusty, potholed road we arrived at the village. We stepped out of the taxi and as I stretched by arms up above me, Chris was greeted by a old women who handed him a hand written note. As I rounded the car I knew from Chris’ expression it was not good news. The note read:

“Dear Dr and Mrs H (a bit premature but I’ll take it),

I apologise for not meeting you this morning/afternoon. I would like to ask you if you can find another hotel to stay in because we have had a death in the family.

I hope you will understand and again I apologise.

Regards,…”

Obviously, upon receiving such a note you cannot feel resentful of having to change your plans. I felt very sorry for the family and their loss and knew that it was Fijian custom to not work for 1 week in mourning after a family death. Chris and I were however disappointed because our stay at Vuna Lodge was going to be the closest we could get to our life in Fiji four years ago, as it was a homestay set up with the Chief of the village. It was therefore with a sense of resignation and shock that we turned back around and had to explain to Jesh that we would need his services for longer than anticipated. With that we got back in the taxi and drove back north, past the ferry jetty and arrived at our second hotel Maravu Resort (which we has intended to stay at for 5 nights later during our stay on the island). With no other options which offered the value that Maravu offered, we booked in early and settled in for 10 days in an area of Taveuni called Matei.

It was during our stay in Maravu that we became personally re-accustomed to two Fijian customs which are unusual to Western culture. The first was a growing awareness of the existence of a third gender in Fiji, and the second was our evening spent taking part in the Maravu daily Kava ceremony, the second.

As a student of gender history, there is one, relatively unknown facet of Fijian culture which I found fascinating. It is known to anthropologists, historians, journalists (etc.) that there are diverse and fluid expressions of gender or sexual identity in the Pacific island region.  Western definitions such as homosexual or transgendered actually fulfil well-established cultural or ritual functions within various parts of the Pacific, and Fiji is no exception.

[n.b. I would not wish to insult any Fijian by assuming to understand their gender or sexual identity, and therefore I would like to make clear that the following discussion is based on generalisation and unfortunately ignores individual experiences and definitions.]

As a visitor walks around any Fijian town, or visits any restaurant, bar or resort, they may notice male Fijians who may associate more closely with the female gender, or who portray ‘camp’ or homosexual characteristics. In Fiji, the basis for such identity could be based more strongly in their culture than expected.  As I learnt when living in Fiji in 2013, there is a custom, where if a family has given birth to a succession of boys, but no girls, the last boy may be assigned the gender of female upon birth, and therefore grow up to be responsible for helping with the female tasks within the family and community. In Fijian culture, men who present themselves as women, or who live their lives as women are referred to as Vaka sa lewa lewa. This is a pacific common custom, for example In Samoa, these people are called Fa’afafine; in Maori the term is Whakawahine; in Hawai’i, the word Māhū is used to describe an individual who might be of third-gender, (and in contemporary use, those who indentify as transgender, transvestites or homosexual). The complexities with these identities and terms are obviously too many for me to begin to attempt to analyse here, but it certainly raises interesting questions about gender (and both the positive acceptance of the third-gender, and perhaps negative involuntary assignment of such an identity on a child.)

In terms of the cultural acceptance of fluid gender and sexual identity, unfortunately, contact with Europeans and the subsequent colonization of the pacific region often resulted in rejection or suppression of these identities. This is perhaps still represented by the individuals I met who portrayed themselves as Vaka sa lewa lewa in everything from their speech, to their jewellery, to their feminine movements: all except in their clothing.  However, it seems that (perhaps independently, or as influenced by the liberalisation of western perceptions) these identities are being reclaimed and redefined. The greater awareness and use of a more fluid spectrum of gender and sexual identity, than is commonly known of in the western world, is represented by the Drodrolagi Movement (drodrolagi = rainbow) based out of Suva which quotes its mission as “to create and celebrate a culture of equality, respect, dignity and pride for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) community in Fiji.” (https://www.facebook.com/pg/Drodrolagi.Movement/about/?ref=page_internal).

This existence of a third gender (whether assigned from birth, or perhaps chosen), within Fiji (and I assume among other pacific cultures) is particularly striking in contrast to the dominant male figure of the masculine rugby playing, spear fishing man. Witnessing the elegance with which a tall, muscular Fijian man would execute the simplest task from pouring a drink, to walking across the road was certainly opened my eyes as to how much gender identity/expectations influence a person in the smallest, subconscious ways. One custom that is perhaps not subconscious, and entertainingly mirrored part of the LGBQT culture in the western world, was when one of our bar tenders in Taveuni (who we had known for over a week by this point), cuttingly mocked Chris’ fashion choice with the utmost level of sass. To Chris’ dismay, I laughed uproariously and proceeded to agree with his assessment. You are welcome to come to your own conclusions on the delightful purple shirt pictured below…

purple

One place where Chris’ shirt would be welcomed, was the daily Kava ceremony that the friendly Fijian staff would host every singly night at Maravu resort. I am sure that this ceremony is sold to the foreign management as being for the benefit of introducing tourists to the cultures and traditions of Fiji (which it succeeds at), but having witnessed long Kava sessions with no interest whatsoever from the western visitors indicated the additional motivation for the staff: this was a long ingrained, and enjoyable habit for them. Chris and I had to partake in Kava ceremonies weekly when we last lived in Fiji. It was a large part of village culture that after Church and lunch on Sundays, the men of the village would come together and form uneven circles around the kava bowl, drinking the liquid one by one for many hours on end. Women would join in too (depending on the village) and would sit on the outskirts (although as westerners, when we visited we were included in the main circle).

Fijian_kava_ceremony (2)
Kava Ceremony. By Jaejay77 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It was during our first evening in Maravu that we tasted kava again, and it was just as I remembered. Kava is the name given to a drink which Fijians (and others from the Pacific prepare), by grounding up the root of a plant and mixing it with water before straining into a specially carved, large wooden bowl. The drink is then handed out in half-coconut shells and tradition states that before receiving your cup you clap loudly once, down the drink, then clap three times after passing the cup back. The portions of kava come in three sizes, low tide, high tide and tsunami. Depending on the sympathies of the Fijian dishing out the kava you are either lucky or unlucky, although there is certainly a gender bias with most men getting given no choice and always being given high tide or tsunami. The drink itself tastes much as would be expected from the murky brown look of it – like muddy water. Do not be fooled by the Fijians telling you that it tastes of chicken soup – a joke I heard told almost every night at Maravu! The drink is known for its slight sedative effects, for calming anxiety and for a slight mouth/lip numbing effect. The drink itself is not addictive, but I would assume that tradition has instilled such a strong habit on some Fijians that they may feel a strong desire for it. This desire may also stem from the communal atmosphere which arises around the kava ceremony. In Maravu this was created by a Fijian with a guitar and with melodic singing, a tradition which I also experienced in the villages in 2013. The kava ceremony is also performed at important village meetings and many important decisions must have occurred around the kava bowl over the centuries. The ceremonial role of kava is also illustrated by the fact that kava roots are always given as a gift to the village chief by any visitor. If you are visiting Fiji, I would certainly encourage trying this traditional tipple, although I still wish that their native drink was kava with a C not a k!

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