David Whitley goes drinking with a difference on Vanuatu’s main island, Efate



It’s an invite that I’m lucky to get. If I’d rocked up on my own, it may have been rather uncomfortable – although, in fairness, I’d have never found it in a million years. The owner of my hotel has brought me to his favourite nakimal – a word that means �?meeting place’ in Bislama, one of the more common of Vanuatu’s hundreds of languages.


Vanuatu’s increasing numbers of visitors will know a nakimal as a kava bar. Heading to one is seen as a bit of a cultural evening, and there are some around the main island of Efate that effectively exist for the visitors rather than the locals. The one we’ve driven to in the dark, up a seemingly interminable hillside most certainly doesn’t fit that description. The hotel owner – Bernie* - regards this as his local, and his fellow drinkers as friends. He doesn’t ordinarily bring his guests here – just those that have expressed a specific interest in getting to know the country and its people.


Bernie is welcomed in by Robert, who seems to see him as an uncle figure. Bernie has given Robert work and training as part of his commitment to only employing ni-Vanuatu staff. Many of the other chaps at the nakimal feel the same way. Running a nakimal is a protected industry here. Only ni-Vanuatu people are allowed to operate one, and the best will generally get their kava in from the island of Tanna. Kava is a bitter tasting drink made from the roots of the kava plant – a relation of the pepper bush. It’s illegal in some countries, but part of �?kastom’ – the traditional way of life that still holds tremendous sway here.


It’s often banned for two reasons, the first being that you’re effectively drinking muddy water and the second being the allegedly narcotic properties. I hand over 100 vatu for a coconut shell full of the murky juice. I’ve tried the Samoan equivalent before, but this is clearly much stronger. I try to hide my wince as I drink it down – it’s what can only be described as an acquired taste. It’s bitter, earthy and somewhat tongue-numbing but I can’t say I’m entering an altered state of consciousness.


But it’s a mistake to think a visit to the nakimal is about the drink. It’s the Melanesian equivalent of a trip to the local pub, and the talking is far more important than the kava itself.


As Bernie says: “Most of the business of parliament is done in a kava hut – it’s just ratified in the Parliament building.”


Fascinating though Bernie’s insights are, I get far more insight into the local culture by talking to his friends. Robert tells me that he has been in love with a woman for twenty years, but has only recently got permission from his mother and the village chief to marry her. That’s one hell of a long wait for approval.


Sam* has an even more extraordinary, heart-breaking story to tell. His wife has recently given birth to his second son. But kastom dictates that children are somewhat portable amongst the extended family. The chief and Sam’s mother have said that he must give his newborn son to his brother – who only has daughters. Each brother having a male heir is seen as more important than biological bonds between child and parent. Sam is clearly fighting back the tears as he explains, distraught at having to put duty before love.


My visit is fairly brief, and only skims the surface of local life in Vanuatu. But it does show me something very important – it’s not the drink that’s important, but the people you’re sharing it with.


*All names have been changed on request