Sittin' on the Grog Mat
by: Lynsey Horne
Kava drinking has been a practice in Fijian villages for generations. A natural sedative, the root of the kava plant, when powdered, mixed with water, and drank, can produce effects similar to alcohol, though much subtler. The chief, Tui Mali, did not allow any alcohol on the island, though we did drink kava almost every night we spent in Fiji.
Kava, though it does have mind-altering properties, is used in many traditional Fijian ceremonies like lovo celebrations, where they cook meats in an underground oven (lovo) for different ceremonial purposes, like welcoming guests, saying goodbye, or blessing a building or place. When used ceremonially, the men manning the large bo
wl where the kava is mixed into grog wear traditional grass skirts, are bare-chested, with lines painted on their chests, backs, and faces with charcoal mixed with coconut oil. The chief sits on his own mat, separate from the others with a space of about five feet between him and the primary mixing bowl, called the Tanoa. During a more formal ceremony, a bundle of kava will generally be presented on behalf of a visiting guest, a goodbye ceremony, or as a blessing to a building or farm. If this is happening, the men at the front of the group on the kava mat will say a prayer, cobo, and then proceed to serve bilos of kava around to everyone on the mat. In a passing session, the chief always receives his bilo first, with one cobo (pronounced “thombo”) before receiving, and three after drinking and passing it back. The three men mixing and passing the grog will then fill bilos and pass them to everyone sitting on the grog mat, and everyone will cobo once before receiving the bilo and three times after drinking it, signifying “I receive the bilo that you’re giving to me,” and “thank you.” After everyone on the mat has had a bilo, the men passing the kava will take bilos for themselves, and then the passing session is at an end. Everyone will sit for a little while, telling stories and conversing, until the chief signifies to pass the kava again. This will repeat until the tanoa is empty, in which case they will either end the session or mix more to continue drinking.
There are more relaxed sessions that we participated in where the formalities of kava presentation, shirtless men, and prayers are not present. Some of the customs that are still practiced in these informal settings are the cobo before and after drinking a bilo, wearing sulus, women covering their chest and shoulders, sitting the proper way, not entering the space between the chief and the tanoa, crouching as you approach the chief, and saying “tulo” if walking past someone.
During these nights on the grog mat, there would often be instrument playing and singing; the Fijians sometimes teaching us Fijian hymns, and our group sometimes would sing and write different versions of songs we all knew. This was a really fun way to get to know the Fijians, those living on Vorovoro that we saw often as well as those from other villages/islands. There were several nights that Tui Mali would tell us stories, sometimes funny stories but sometimes they were told with the intent to impart a lesson of sorts. Whatever the case, I always enjoyed hearing Tui Mali’s insight on different things.
The kava sessions were some of the most fun as well as culturally educational experiences that we had and learned about while on the island. I’ll forever be grateful to Tui Mali, Team Fiji, and all the other amazing Fijians I was lucky enough to meet, for including us in these special settings.