The traditional sevusevu welcoming ceremony of Fiji and a reluctant, first-time kava drinker

I chose a table right near the musicians, foolishly considering this was a spectator activity. I thought I had a prime spot. I had been encouraged to sit on the woven mat with the musicians but I thought they were kidding. Other, more experienced, cruisers arrived a little later than my family and began assembling on the floor. They sat cross-legged and were given flower necklaces. I kind of wish I had a flower necklace. They were simple and beautiful.

The sevusevu ceremony began. The chief provided an explanation. The kava drink was in a large, elevated bowl. The kava is made from a root. It is not alcoholic but it can cause your mouth to become numb and also cause you to be sleepy.

Traditional sevusevu ceremony. The chief is wearing a boar tusk to indicate his status and lineage. The large bowl contains the kava drink. Photo by Julia of SV Tribalance.

The people on the mat were asked to clap once to receive the Kava. Then, they were told to gulp it down all at once. And, finally they had to clap three times. And, so the ceremony began.


A cruiser, acting as chief of the cruisers, took a gulp.

He clapped three times.

You can see his reaction in the video below.

A man, appointed Chief of the Cruisers, takes a sip of kava during a traditional sevusevu welcoming ceremony.

The process was repeated in clockwise fashion.

Men and women participated in the ceremony.

As the ceremony began to come to an end, everyone on the mat had received a cup of kava. I began to worry and turned to Julia. 

“Okay, so this is really terrible, but I think I have to go. I am really worried he is going to offer me it.”

“You’re fine. I’m sure he’s not.”

“Can we just say no?” 

“I’ve read that it is rude to decline.”

I turned around and faced the ceremony. At that point, the man leading the sevusevu said, “Would anyone else like kava?” As he spoke his eyes met mine and he extended the cup in my direction.

I stammered. So far, I have avoided eating raw fish, and wild tern eggs, but the kava experience was not going to let me off the hook. There were too many eyes watching. Sevusevu is an experience we will encounter when we travel in Fiji. There is no escaping it.

“Yes, I will try.” I clap once. I take a sip and swallow.

My tongue becomes mildly numb. I look into the cup and the drink reminds me in taste and texture of potato starch water with a hint of bitterness. It is not a good taste but it is not horrible. I drink it to the last drop and clap three times. 

Soon, my chin is numb and my whole jaw is disconnected. In short order, I am singing along to “Islands in the Stream” as though I know all of the words. My mouth moves like a muppet. The effect of the kava was short but the intent of the traditional welcoming ceremony was strong.

Before we embark to the Lau Island group we have been advised to stock our boat with about $150 worth of fresh and powdered kava root.

The kava root is an important social lubricant and holds enormous tradition. We will carry kava on our boat because, at a really superficial level, it is a bit like bringing a bottle of wine to a dinner host. The difference is that, in our situation, we are seeking permission to come to ‘dinner’ in the first place. Fijians consider their properties to include their land and the water around it. We must bring kava. However, there is no obligation for a village to allow us to anchor. Without the kava, it would be as though we were camping in someone’s backyard without permission.

Since we have arrived in Fiji, we have felt welcomed by everyone we have met. The customs officers were very friendly.

Strangers we see on the street greet us with ‘Bula’, which means ‘Life’. The handshakes are firm, much firmer than you might tend to find in Canada. The cruiser scene here is lively. Interestingly, the first people we saw in the Savusavu harbor were from Ottawa on a boat called SV Coastal Drifter.

Me with Phillip and Debra Perfitt of Ottawa. They are soon to be house-sitting in Carp, which is minutes from where we lived in Canada.

We will be here in Savusavu until sometime next week. We are making a temporary rudder.

Today, Rick connected with a local man to do some welding work. We also met some people who are familiar with abandoned boats, and can give us access fiberglass through salvage. This will allow us to make a fiberglass-steel- fiberglass rudder sandwich until proper, new rudders can be made and shipped.

Here are some pictures I took today in Savusavu.

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