Vanuatu Kava Tradition: Nakamals

Vanuatu Kava Tradition: Nakamals

Vanuatu is in the South Pacific Islands and has been inhabited since 500 B.C. It is comprised of islands and islets with volcanic and mountainous regions.

Vanuatu relies on many forms of agricultural subsistence living including fishing and hunting. They make money through exporting certain agricultural products. One that is very popular is kava, taken from the root of the piper methysticum plant that is found throughout Vanuatu. Vanuatu kava tradition expands throughout centuries, and has greatly influenced the culture of today. We have adopted many of these traditions, including nakamals -- also known as kava bars. 

Vanuatu Kava Tradition & History

Kava is said to have originated in Vanuatu over three thousand years ago. Many believe that kava was initially popular because of its medicinal uses.

Harvesters clone parts of the piper plant families to form the piper methysticum plant. Travelers took strands of the plant to other islands in the South Pacific, each creating their own version of kava.

Vanuatu remains the leader in having the most varieties of kava. They have more varieties of kava than anywhere else in the world.

The use of kava can vary from islanders. Some think it's best to consume daily while other islanders, such as Malekula, associate kava with a cult of death.

There are also many legends surrounding kava.

Kava Legends

Varying legends exist and some are quite mythical. Some believe good kava was found by two sisters who were washing themselves by the ocean after gathering yams for food. The story states a sister touches the kava plant. Noting its pleasurable sensations, the sisters took the root and began to cultivate this new kava plant.

Other legends state kava was given by the Gods. They also include spiritual qualities or the mixture of spirit Gods and humans. The Vanuatu kava tradition and legends have been a part of Vanuatu culture for years. 

Southern vs. Northern Vanuatu

Historians claim the origin of kava began in Northern Vanuatu, specifically on the island of Maewo. This is spectacular, that all kava that exists today can be traced back to a single plant in Northern Vanuatu.

From this location, kava was then shipped to Fiji, where it was named Yaqona, and from there, to other islands. Some chose to keep the name kava, others chose to create their own name.

Most reports state kava did not originate in Southern Vanuatu. The residents of the southern part of the islands had to import the kava plant and learn its uses just like every other user in the Pacific.

In ancient times, both southern and northern Vanuatu kava tradition is similar. They prepare and drink kava in the most traditional ways, which includes chewing and spitting practices. The location where locals drink and celebrate with kava are also the same. These structures are nakamals.


In Vanuatu kava tradition, special huts were built in ancient times just for drinking kava. These are nakamals. You know them today as a kava bar

Traditionally, nakamals were built for chiefs and village leaders to meet and make important decisions. Every community in Vanuatu contains nakamals. While the shape and construction of the nakamal can vary, many have a similar A-frame style.

Some communities decorate nakamals to represent the community. Other nakamals remain simple with nothing drawing attention to its existence.

With a resurgence in the popularity of kava, nakamals are popping up all over the world.

Vanuatu Kava Tradition | Nakamals | Root of Happiness

Kava Today

Kava is extremely popular today, and not just in the Pacific Islands. Nakamals, or kava bars, are accessible in most major cities including New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and many more.

Kava has so many benefits and people consume it for many different reasons. Some use it to achieve relaxation after a long day at work. Others use it to alleviate aches and pains.

Kava’s benefits also include mental alertness while feeling completely at ease. Muscles relax and an overall feeling of good will or happiness encompasses the person consuming kava.

Many people today are choosing to replace alcohol with kava. They do so because kava is a terrific way to relax and calm down after a long day at work, but without the hangover the next day. In addition, their mind stays clear.

While nakamals may look quite different in cities versus rural areas, they are consistent in in the fact that you will reach your desired effect easily.

If you wish to experience Vanuatu kava, you are in luck. You can purchase it from kava suppliers who work directly with Vanuatu harvesters. Or, you can visit your local kava bar for a low key, yet social experience.

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