Kava drinking in Hamilton: An interview with Dr Apo Aporosa

Last week one of our members travelled down to Hamilton to visit Dr Apo Aporosa, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Waikato who is one of the leading kava scholars and a true enthusiast and promoter of the kava culture. Apo also runs the Waikato University Kava Club and an informal network of local kava drinkers who meet regularly around Hamilton for relaxed kava sessions. Our member had the opportunity to participate in one of their sessions at Apo's place on Sunday and also got a chance to chat about his research projects. He's asked him a few questions that could be of interest and relevance to many other kava drinkers: 

Kava Society: Thank you for inviting me to share some kava with you and your friends. How often do you guys meet? Where are most of the drinkers from?  

Apo Aporosa: That’s a simply question although there are multiple answers. Some of the crew you drank kava with on Sunday drink once per week whereas others drink 3 or 4 times a week.  In that group you were with there were Tongans, Fijians and Europeans.  It just depends on the situation as to who will be there at a given kava session.  For me, I drink several times per week in settings that range from drinking with a sole European through to a hall full of my Fijian relatives and friends, and other times with just Tongans.  Kava is connected to both cultural and social gatherings, so the possibilities are always shifting and changing.  Who knows, maybe in the next 15 minutes I will be told that a family member has passed on, which means we will stop, gather, and mix kava to acknowledge them and to plan how we will respond; like sending money etc… 
KS: You sometimes mention that kava sessions have therapeutic value for many of the people that attend them. Could you elaborate on this? How do people benefit from the kava sessions?
AA: When we drink kava, it’s usually sitting on the floor in a circle around the kava bowl, facing one another without loud music or distraction. So the setting is designed for communication.  Added to that, kava doesn’t change your emotions or disinhibit you like when you drink alcohol; it simply relaxes the body and reduces anxiety if you feel wound up.  Most of our time drinking kava – and that is often six plus hours per session – is spent in meaningful conversation which often creates space where people air their problems seeking solutions, or where someone points out to another that they notice/heard that help is needed. So kava consumption venues often act as therapy, although this is typical for many collectivist cultures where face-to-face communication dominates. Here’s an example of how this kind of works: A gang of us were drinking kava on New Year’s Day a few years ago and one of the crew suggested we all say what our New Year’s resolutions was and how others could help us to achieve that goal.  Yeah, it sounds lame in the cold light of day, but what resulted after a couple of months was 2 of the gang gave up smoking and one went to Teachers College based on follow up support from others who committed to help.  I like what my mate Edmund Fehoko said about Tongan faikava circles which is equally applicable to most kava environments I go to; they essentially act as “cultural classrooms” where people reconnect with their language, song, people etc.  You can find that article online.  It’s called, “Social space and cultural identity”, and was published in the New Zealand Sociology journal.  What Edmund says is very true, and as part of that, when mutual sharing happens within these kava communities, therapy happens.  Maybe that’s why studies have found that people who share strong identity connections within collectivist cultural communities tend to have lower mental health issues.  
KS: You adhere to many of the Fijian traditions surrounding kava. Is the Fijian approach to kava unique? Do most people drinking kava in Waikato follow some of the Fijian customs, etc? 

AA: For me it plays a dominant role because I’m Fijian.  From young we are taught vakaturaga values of respect (behaving in a chiefly manner even if you are not one; sharing and caring; meeting obligations etc.).  Vakaturaga is uniquely linked to kava use practice.  Added to that, kava and kava use has great cultural significance with kava seen as containing mana, so essentially it’s against the culture of kava to disrespect people at kava sessions.  This is a constant when we drink; it kind of hangs over you, but in a positive way, not as a negative.  But this isn’t unique to Fijians as all Pacific Islanders have similar values.  For instance the Tongan version of vakaturaga is ‘anga fakaTonga’ and for Samoans it ‘fa’aSamoa’ and ‘tautua faatamalii’.  Tongan and Samoan kava use is also driven by respect values.  I have attended thousands of kava sessions.  I have never, not once, ever seen a fight, someone storm off unhappy or anything like that happen; and that’s after thousands of kava sessions.  I have though seen a lot of apologies in which kava has been used as the medium to mend relationships. You can’t really do that with alcohol because of the way it changes emotions.  That respect ideal surrounding kava use has been taken into many of the European kava groups that meet around here as well.  Maybe though that’s because many of those people first started drinking kava with islanders so have taken what they learnt with them.  I wrote a bit on this topic in an article on the evolution of kava identity into new spaces, meaning into non-Pasifika environments.  You can find that article online if you want to know more.  It’s called “The new kava user: Diasporic identity formation in reverse” and was published in the New Zealand Sociology journal. 
KS: What kava do you normally drink? Do you like it strong or more diluted?

AA: The kava we drink can be from relatives who bring it from the islands, or purchased from Islanders who sell from their homes here in Hamilton, or from dairy shops. This means the varieties of kava are different and the possibility of adulteration a possibility.  Admittedly this could be harmful if something was mixed into the kava, but that’s not something we tend to over-concern ourselves with.  That’s because of the cultural importance of kava and our belief that kava contains mana.  Like, in one sense, kava can never be ‘bad’ because mana is never bad.  Additionally, if someone comes to your house and present’s kava, we drink it because of the culture and respect attitudes behind the presentation.  This is all regardless of the source or quality of the kava.  Non-Pasifika people tend to look at our kava drinking and simply see a group of Islanders sitting around a kava bowl drinking brown water, clapping occasionally, and talking and sometimes singing.  What they fail to see or understand is layers and layers of culture, veiled behaviours based on hierarchy and respect, and a thousand other small things right down to how you speak and joke with certain cross-cousins or someone from another part of your Island group.  It’s often complicated for non-Pasifikans to get a handle on, but at the base of what we do is respect as the kava culture is highly influenced by our respect values.  Man, I think I went off track there.  

Ok, kava mix strength.  In the Fijian community we tend to drink weaker kava than niVanuatu but stronger than Tongans.  That’s not being critical of how niVanuatu or Tongans drink their kava or making comments related to masculine ‘strength’, it’s just cultural difference.  Additionally, niVanuatu tend to drink for a couple of hours whereas for us Fijians, an ‘average’ kava session is six hours although eight plus is not uncommon, whereas the Tongans typically drink for longer.  So kava strength also has some influence on the length of time you drink for.  Occasionally we will mix stronger kava if mixing for a shorter period, but then our goal is not to simply get ‘dope’ – an Island colloquialism for the relaxed effects brought on by kava which is very different to alcohol intoxication.  Is more about the conversation and the connection aspect.  I like how Professor Richard Katz, a psychologist from Harvard University who spent two years in Fiji researching the use of kava in traditional healing, puts it.  He stated, “kava stimulates good talk and good talk demands that we keep drinking kava” (1993:191).  So for us, it’s more about the talking and the cultural continuance than it is about the kava.  Yes, the kava facilitates the conversation and adds to cultural continuance all driven by respect based values, but we don’t simply drink kava just to get some type of ‘hit’.  That is why it’s culturally inappropriate to drink kava on your own.  It’s always done ‘in’ community, but that’s another story.  Mmmm?  Did I answer your question and make sense.  This really reflects the multi-layeredness of the culture that surrounds kava use for Islanders.
KS: Do you see kava becoming more mainstream, attracting completely non-traditional drinkers? 

AA: Absolutely.  I mentioned earlier about that article I wrote called, “The new kava user: Diasporic identity formation in reverse”.  That was driven by the increasing numbers of non-Pasifikans I saw coming to join our kava sessions.  Interestingly though, some of them have gone off and started European kava circles, but these are highly influenced by the Pasifika settings and often include some Pasifika language, sitting on the floor, clapping when served etc.  You can read more about that in the article where I explain that these people have added to their sense of identity by drawing in aspects of the kava culture.  Then you have those non-Pasifikans who have not been influenced by the Pasifika kava environments and drink very differently, some at home by themselves or attend contemporary kava bars such as those in the USA who promote kava as an alternative to alcohol.  In the past couple of years there has been an increase in kava products more attractive to the non-Pasifika drinker such as flavoured kava’s that come in sachets that you put into shacker-bottles and drink in a glass.  This is interesting to me as kava for me is about the culture, environment, the process of straining and mixing etc.  I’m not saying what is happening in the non-Pacifika kava-world is wrong, it’s just very different from what I’m used to.  In fact, if I compare the new non-cultural kava user and how they drink kava when compared to alcohol, I’d support the new kava user over the alcohol scene any day.  That’s simply because kava doesn’t cause the socio-cultural dysfunction and disharmony that results from alcohol, as kava acts very differently.  For instance, on New Years’ Day 2015, TVOne News journalist Helen Castles did a story on New Zealand’s St. Johns Ambulance and how busy they were the previous night.  She stated, “St Johns workload tripled on New Year’s Eve with the majority of that work being alcohol related".  I have attended kava functions most New Year’s Eve and have attended several thousand kava sessions over many years, and I can confirm that there has not been a single incident, ever, in which a kava user at any of these events has been taken to hospital, required medical attention, or been involved in a fight or any type of aggression.  I can’t say the same for alcohol.  So from that perspective, I will always support kava use over alcohol.

KS: Tell me a little bit about your research. You have published numerous papers and even books on the kava culture. Currently you are focusing on the effects of kava consumption on driving. It sounds like a much more quantitative project, or is it also linked to your previous research? What has made you interested in studying the effects of kava on driving? 

AA: If you want to check out those publications you can find them on my website, www.aporosa.net under the publications tab.  One article that many find helpful is an explanation on the difference between kava and alcohol which explains how kava works etc.  Much of my previous work has focused on the culture of kava although I did do some cognitive tests to assess kava hang-over in my doctoral study.  My latest work, as you say, is looking at the effects of kava on driving.  This research is funded by a Health Research Councils Pasifika Post-Doctoral Award and has me working at The University of Waikato in a joint Anthropology/Psychology role.  Anthropology because I believe culture can never be taken out of the kava equation, and Psychology as the research will include the use of computer based psychometric tests to measure kava effects on cognition and driving ability when drunk over several hours.  This is the first time a study of this nature has been done and will be very interesting as driving post kava use is pretty common and most of us feel we are ok, but this will give us the facts.  Added to this, I have been contacted by the Police a few times after they have pulled over drivers they suspect were ‘impaired’ by kava.  As I have said to the Police, until such time as kava drink-drivers have been cognitively tested, no authoritative comment can be made on the effects of kava to driving.  With drug-driving in NZ estimated to have an annual "social cost" of $6.5m and accounted for 31% of fatalities in 2004, this is an important study as we kava drinkers don’t want to be adding to this.  Additionally, injury resulting from road traffic accidents is the leading cause of hospitalisation for Pasifika men and women living in NZ, so maybe there is a link here.  The key though is that if kava is found to negatively impact on drinking, this does not take away or reduce the cultural importance of kava.  People have already said that my study might threaten kava and lead to it being banned.  No, driving and kava are two separate issues.  To drive after the use of any drug, whether kava, alcohol, too much Red Bull or whatever is about choice, not about the drug.  Kava will always play a dominant role in my life and act as an icon of my identity regardless of what my study finds. Kava users may just have to make different choices regarding driving after kava use, choices based on the respect and care of others.  Time will tell as the study unfolds. 

A  summary of Dr Aporosa's research project:

Kava drink-driving: Driver safety and injury minimization to improve health

The purpose of this research is to assess the effects of kava on cognitive abilities that are related to driving following the drinking of kava at traditional consumption volumes. 

Kava is a traditional drink of great cultural significance to most Pasifika people1. The drink contains a number of active compounds called kavalactones, making it mildly psychoactive, but it is neither alcoholic nor hallucinogenic.  Kava's effects are soporific-relaxant with large doses (as traditionally drunk by Pasifikans) reportedly causing lethargy and slight double vision without euphoria2, effects some suggest impact driving ability3-5. Studies show kava use among NZ Pasifikan’s is increasing6-10 with research from 2010 suggesting there are more than 20,000 kava drinkers in NZ on any given Friday or Saturday night10.  Research suggests that approximately 70% of kava users move about in motor vehicles following drinking sessions11. The NZ Police report increasing numbers of kava 'intoxicated' drivers12.  Drug-driving in NZ is estimated to have an annual "social cost" of $6.5m13 and accounted for 31% of fatalities in 200414. Injury resulting from road traffic accidents is the leading cause of hospitalisation for Pasifika men and women living in NZ15.  It is suspected that kava is an unaccounted factor in the high rate of Pasifika road traffic accidents. Although anecdotal reports exist questioning driver competency following kava consumption2-4,16-20, to date, research has not been completed which specifically measures the effects of kava use on driver fitness.  This research, funded by a Health Research Councils Pasifika Post-Doctoral Award, will create new knowledge concerning kava and cognition through the administration of industry standard driving assessments to kava users during a typical culturally influenced kava session. This has the potential to reduce Pasifika traffic incidents and in turn positively impact health for Pasifikan’s living not only in NZ, but also the wider Pacific.
1  Aporosa, S. (2015). Yaqona (kava) as a symbol of cultural identity. Locale: The Australasian-Pacific Journal of Regional Food Studies, 4, 79-101.

2  Aporosa, S. (2011). Is kava alcohol?: The myths and the facts. Journal of Community Health and Clinical  Medicine for the Pacific, 17(1), 157-164. (p.159).

3   Jolly, D. N. (2009). DUI / DWI: The History of Driving Under the Influence. Colorado: Outskirts Press. (p.67).

4  Poulsen, H., Moar, R., & Troncoso, C. (2012). The incidence of alcohol and other drugs in drivers killed in New Zealand road crashes 2004-2009. Forensic Science International, 223(1-3), 364-370. (p. 367).

5   Mason, K., Hewitt, A., Stefanogiannis, K., Bhattacharya, A., Yeh, L. C., & Devlin, M. (2010). Drug use in New Zealand: Key results of the 2007/08 New Zealand Alcohol and Drug Use Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

6   Nosa, V., & Ofanoa, M. (2009). The Social, cultural and medicinal use of Kava for twelve Tongan born men living in Auckland, New Zealand. Pacific Health Dialog, 15(1), 96-102.

7     Fehoko, E. (2014). Pukepuka fonua: An exploratory study on the faikava as an identity marker for New Zealand-born Tongan males in Auckland, New Zealand. (Masters), Auckland University of Technology.

8    Taufa, A. H. M. (2014). Her side of the kava story: Exploring the effects of heavy kava use based on the perspective of Tongan women residing in Auckland, New Zealand. (Masters of Public Health), The University of Auckland.

9  Asiasiga, L., Hodges, I., Kamakorewa, S., Kilioni, M., Malani, F., McNicholas, T., . . . Tuivoavoa, R. (1997). Na tabili kavoro: ALAC Research Monograph Series: No 4. Wellington: Ministry of Health forthe Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand. (p.6-8).

10  Aporosa, S. (2015). The new kava user: Diasporic identity formation in reverse. New Zealand Journal of Sociology, 30(4). (in post).

11 Maneze, D., Speizer, A., Dalton, N., & Dennis, S. (2008). A descriptive study of kava use among Tongan men in Macarthur, Sydney South West. Australian And New Zealand Journal Of Public Health, 32(4), 314-316. (p.315).

12  Morgan, M. (2014). Personal communication with Police Sergeant, Counties-Manaukau Prosecutions Section, Nov. 4.

13 Slack, A., Nana, G., Webster, M., Stokes, F., & Wu, J. (2009). Costs of harmful alcohol and other drug use: Report for the NZ Ministry of Health and ACC. Wellington: Business and Economic Research Ltd. (p.1,2).

14  Vergara, C. T. (2006). Drugs and driving in New Zealand: An approach to THC culpability. The University of Waikato. (p.2).

15 McCormack, L., Yeh, L. C., Braybrook, B., & Clyne, L. (2012). Tupu ola moui: Pacific health chart book 2012. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

16 District Court of New Zealand. (2000). Police v Tupou, December 7. District Court Register, 2001, 503-512.

17 Unknown. (2007). Kava use led to bad driving, The Nelson Mail, Wednesday, 11 July, p. 3.

18 Wainiqolo, I. (2014). Association of kava with motor vehicle crashes and other injuries: A systematic review. Paper presented at the International Pacific Health Conference. Nov. 3-5, Auckland.

19 Wainiqolo, I., Kafoa, B., McCaig, E., Kool, B., McIntyre, R., & Ameratunga, S. (2013). Development and piloting of the Fiji Injury Surveillance in Hospitals System (TRIP Project-1). Injury, 44(103), 126-131.

20 Forbes, M. (2014). Kava new risk on our roads. stuff.co.nz, Nov. 15. http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/63223316/Kava-new-risk-on-our-roads