Visiting a Fijian Village

If you wish to visit a Fijian village, carry with you a sevusevu (presentation offering) of a bundle of yagona,(Yah-GOH-Nah) the root of the pepper plant, Piper Methysticum. This is the root that is crushed and brewed to create the mildly narcotic drink ‘kava’ (or ‘grog’ as it is known colloquially). Upon entering the village, present the sevusevu to the ‘turaga-ni-koro’ (TOO-rung-her-nee- KOR-raw)or village head and ask for permission to come into the village. Following this you will be welcome to talk with people and take pictures. You may even have the opportunity to meet the chief and participate in a kava ceremony. Be sure to dress modestly but feel free to wear bright colours and wild patterns. Women must cover their shoulders and knees. A ‘sulu’ or wrap around is part of the usual attire.

Most Fijians still live in village communities in extended family groups known as *‘mataqali’ (Martar-garli). Each mataqali owns land in common and belongs to a broader group or clan of people all subject to a paramount chief. Clans gather from across great distances for various social events such as births, marriages, and funerals. Gifts are exchanged, a large feast, or ‘lovo’ is prepared in underground ovens. Men and women sing and dance colourful traditional ‘mekes’ inspired and choreographed by ancient gods and tell ancient stories of migration, war and morality. But sharing music and telling stories is part of everyday life in Fiji. Everything that matters, they say, is discussed or decided around a ‘tanoa’ or kava bowl amid regular interruptions by the strumming of a guitar and the crooning of an island ballad. The preparation of kava and the ritual involved in serving and drinking it is central to its power. Although the first muddy-looking coconut-shell ‘bilo’ of ‘grog’ may shock your taste-buds and force a grimace across your smiling face, the atmosphere surrounding the ritual is captivating. Expect to enjoy many bilos of kava before your journey is done.

Living at the intersection of Melanesia and Polynesia, Fijian are descendants of seafarers who settled these islands more than 3500 years ago. Their fierce and fearless Polynesian cousins of Tonga and Samoa went on to settle in Hawaii, New 

Fiji’s formidable reef system, as well as the people’s reputation as warrior cannibals, kept European sailors at bay until the turn of the 19th century when the Sandalwood was discovered. After a rush of development, enormous influence by missionaries and invasion in many areas by Tongans, a turbulent political period of local strife came to a close when Fijian chiefs ceded the islands to Britain in 1874. Fiji regained its independence as a sovereign state in 1970.

Fijians are a gentle and religious Christian people. But Fiji also has rich and vibrant Hindu, Muslim and Sikh cultures. Half of the 750,000 people in Fiji are descendants of the indentured Indian labourers brought in by the British in the late 1800s to work in cane fields. Tiny temples and mosques scattered around the countryside reflect the diversity and harmony of the Indo-Fijians. Although less orthodox in terms of caste and more tolerant of alternative religions. Fijian Indians have retained their ancient traditions of dress, language and family and a variety of religious holidays and festivals are celebrated in Fiji. In the largest towns, don’t be surprised to see many flowing saris as you do coloured sulus!

Yaqona Ceremony 

This is called “Qaloqalovi” or Traditional Ceremony of Welcome. (Fijian pronunciation would be GarLo-Garlo-VEE. This is a very solemn ceremony and out of respect everyone who are present must sit crossed legged on the ground or floor with absolute silence. Only the Spokesman’s voice while welcoming the Chief Guest would be heard. This Ceremony is performed as a ceremony of welcome or during auspicious occasions. 

This is the presentation of Yaqona (yah-GOH-nah), pharmacologically known as kavakava. The presentation of the Yaqona is called the “Sevusevu” (se-VOOH-se-VOOH). The tanoa (TAR-noah) large wooden bowl carved from the trunk of the vesi tree (intsia bijuga) is placed in front of the honored guest at a respectful distance with the sau (cord of plaited coconut fibre with cowrie shells attached) extended towards the position of honor. Participating men dressed in traditional costumes sit themselves around the tanoa – positions vary in different parts of Fiji, but there is always one seated directly behind the tanoa whose responsibility is to prepare the yaqona. Water is poured from an earthenware vessel or bamboo container, and the grated or pounded yaqona placed in bundle of vau (VAR -woo) (hibiscus tiliaceus) fibre through which it is strained. 

At some point an ancient chant is taken up by a group seated behind the tanoa to the accompaniment of wooden drum (lali – LAH-lee). The man preparing the yaqona then raises the strainer and wrings out the drink to allow the matanivanua –(Matah-nee-vah-NOO-WAH) (hereditary position of spokesman for the honored guest) to judge whether the consistency is correct.The yaqona mixer then hands, or sometimes tosses, the strainer to a man behind who shakes out the dregs and returns it to the mixer who uses it to wipe the rim of the tanoa. He then announces that the yaqona is ready, and claps three times. Fijian clapping (cobo – THAW-Bhoh) is done with hallowed hands and is a sign of respect.

The yaqona is now served. The server coils back the Sau (SAR-ou)(coconut fibre cord), picks up the bilo-(BEE-law) (coconut shell cup) and extends it toward the tanoa to be filled. He then turns, arms extended holding out the bilo, and sways and steps towards the honored guest to the rhythm of the chanting. The chant ends abruptly when the cup- bearer pours the yaqona into the honored guest’s bilo, the Chief guest claps and drinks the yaqona slowly, in one draught, to the clapping of the chanters. When the guest places his bilo on its stand after he has drunk the first serve, the chorus of the word “Maca” (pronounce – Mar-THA) by the servers and those who assemble, honorably signifies that the chief has just finished drinking the first cup of the Yaqona Vakaturaga, and all present clap (or cobo) independently. Immediately after the first cup is drunk, the matanivanua would drink, followed by a small number of guests and their respective matanivanua. The mixer announces that the yaqona has been drunk, claps, and so ends the yaqona Vakaturaga.(VARKar-TOO-Rung-her)

Much of Fijian culture is grounded in the concept of equilibrium that all things done are in pairs. That is why for every cup of yaqona drunk by a guest of honor, a corresponding cup (rabe – RAH-bhe) is drunk, usually by a matanivanua, which does not count in the order of precedence, but conceivably by anyone who wishes to honor the individual who has just drunk.


The tabua –Tam-BOO-wah) or whale’s tooth is obtained from the sperm or cacholot whale and plays an important role in Fiji ceremonies. They are presented to distinguished guests and are exchanged at betrothals, weddings, births, deaths, and when personal or communal agreements or contracts are entered into including the condoning of sinful act.

Traditionally, it is a great honor to be accorded with a tabua because of its sacredness and the value attached to it. It is an infringement of the Fijian law to take a tabua out of Fiji without expressed and written permission from the Ministry of Fijian Affairs.

Tabuas have been in use in Fiji for over 150 years. Prior to this, wooden bua-ta (Boor-TAR) were used. These were highly polished woods from the bua tree (frangipani tree) and shaped similar to the tabua now in use as traditional offerings.

The tabuas were polished with coral sand, coconut oil and leaves of a tree known as the masi-ni-tabua. The shiny effect maintained permanently through constant handling and also from the long-lasting effect of the solution initially rubbed on them.

When the whalers first visited Fiji, they brought ashore whale’s teeth to use for trading purposes. Fijians were struck by the similarity of these to the wooden bua-ta. The Fijians thus named them tabua, derivation from the Fijian word tabu (tar-MBOO) meaning sacred.

A highly polished surface is today as much esteemed in a tabua but size, especially the thickness as judged when looking down directly over the tabua is the main criterion for its value.

When a tabua is about to be presented to a high chief, an elder among those performing the presentation announces a formal and stern greeting known as turivukitabua, (TOOREE-Varkey-TAMBOO-wah) by uttering these vowel and consonants WAH………..OI-ee……..OI-ee…….  

On hearing the expression, the chief understands that the presentation is about to take place and his spokesman replies in the same vein. The ceremonial team formally referred to a tabua as kamunaga (CAR-moo-NUNG-ngha), and this word is used during all ceremonial presentations. Up to this point, the tabua or kamunaga remains unseen but now the individual who is to make the presentation produces it holding it in his left hand and the cord in his right. He begins by addressing the Chief formally in mentioning the chiefly traditional provincial title before the short speech of welcome. At the conclusion, the spokesman would reiterate the special traditional greeting before handing over the kamunaga to the Chief.

Apart from the element of goodwill in every presentation, it is frequently a vehicle for a request, and acceptance of the tabua implies that the recipient is honor bound to carry out his request.

The Tabua is a whale’s tooth, is much prized in Fijian tradition. It takes precedence over everything else and occupies first place in Fiji ceremony, whether for family, intertribal or state occasions. It is regarded as a sacred bond between two parties. It is also used as a symbol of peace and disputes or quarrels can be smoothened over by its presentation 

Today, the presentation of a tabua is often a gesture of goodwill, respect or loyalty from the persons presenting it and the detailed ceremonial ritual is always carefully carried out. It is also often presented at ceremonies associated with births, deaths, marriages, the naming of a child, on departing or returning from a long journey, or after a yaqona ceremony particularly when a chief has been installed and on many other occasions and also the condoning of the violation of traditional law of the land (as explained earlier.)  


Stenciled bark cloth produced in Fiji is known as ‘Masi’ (mar-SEE). Masi is produced in various areas throughout Fiji but is most widespread today in the Lau Group, Vatulele Island, Vanua Levu and Taveuni. Masi cloth is used for traditional marriage, birth and death rites and for ceremonies of welcome. The motifs and design on the cloth will indicate the area from which it originates. 

When the paper mulberry tree (broussonetia papyrifera) reaches maturity (2-3 years), its bark is stripped in as long strips as possible. These strips are coiled and steeped in water for several hours to separate the inner white bark from the center bark, which is scrapped away with a sea-shell. The inner bark is then soaked again to make it more pliable and toughens it for beating into a cloth of the desired length and texture. Layers of the cloth are generally beaten together with a mallet called ike (ee-kae) and the resin in the bark acts as adhesive to hold them together. The edges are also adhered with starch obtained from a root called yabia (yah-BEER) or arrowroot. When the desired size and texture is achieved the cloth is sun-dried until it has white muslin like appearance. (this stage (unstained), the cloth is known as tapa.) The cloth is then stained with stencil designs (cut from Vutu leaves (VOO-two) and also banana leaves) using natural dyes of black and brown hues. The black dye is obtained from soot deposits while the brown dye is obtained from red clay. These dyes are mixed with sap wrung from the bark of the mangrove tree.

Na Vosa Vaka Viti -  Let’s Speak Fijian!

Nothing breaks down cultural barriers and kindles friendships like learning some of the local “lingo”. Wrap your lips around the following tricks to correct Fijian pronunciation:

The letter “b” is pronounced “mb”

“q” is “ngg” (like finger) – So the Fijian name Beqa is pronounced Mbengga

“c” is “th” (‘then’)

“a” is a long sound (like “master”) – so the Fijian place name Laucala is spoken Lauthala

“i” is long (like ‘reef’)

“e” is short (like ‘step”)

“u” is short (like ‘dune) – so the big island of Fiji, Viti Levu is pronounced Veetee Lehvu

“d” is nd – so the placename Nadi is pronounce Nandi

Say “bula” Whenever meeting or greeting in Fiji or when someone sneezes (like “bless you!’)

“Yadra” (Yandra) Good morning!

“Moce” (moceh) Goodbye/Goodnight

“Vinaka” (vinakah) – thank you

“Kana vinaka” – Delicious food!

“Tulou” (toolow) – Excuse me; used when crossing in front of, or behind a seated person and when reaching above a person’s head.

“Vakamalua” (vakah mah loo-wah) – Slowly

“Dua tale” – (Doer Tahleh) – One more!

Mataqali –(Martar-garli) - an agnatically related social unit – usually a lineage of the larger clan

Yagona –( Yah-GOH-nah-) – root of a pepper plant – Piper Methysticum

Tanoa 0 (TAR-noah) – kava bowl made of wood

Turaga-ni-koro – (TOO-rung-her-nee-KOHRAW) – Village Head

Sulu (SOO-loo) – wrap-around waist cloth

Bilo –(BEE-loh) – cup (made from coconut shell or tea-cup)

Lovo – underground oven

Qaloqalovi – (Garlo-Garlo-VEE) – Traditional ceremony of Welcome

Tanoa – (TAR-noah) – large wooden bowl cared from the trunk of the vesi tree

Vesi (Ve-SEE) – hardwood from the tree vesi (intsia bijuga)

Vau (VAR-woo) – bark of vau plant processed and shredded into find strands and used as strainer or yaqona or coconut milk

Matanivanua – (Matah-nee-vah-NOO-WAH) – Aide or spokesman of the chief

Lali (LAH-lee) – wooden drum in different sizes: biggest one is 2-3 feet in diameter is used as church-service bell – small ones as accompaniment for action songs

Cobo (THAW-Bhoh) – clapping of hands with the deep sound by cupping the hands.

Sau – (SAR-ou) – coconut fibre of about 2 feet long ornamented with three cowrie white shells at the end attached to the front of the tanoa or yaqona bowl.

Bilo – (BEE-law) – special shaped cup made from half of coconut shell and well sandpapered, black in color and used for drinking kava or yaqona.

Maca – (Mar-THAR) – empty

Vakaturaga – (VARKar-TOO-rung-her) It refers primarily to actions and personal characteristics which befit the presence of a person of high status, such as a chief or his representatives and counterparts. Chiefly-like-manner or protocol

Rabe- literary means to kick but in this context it is specifically and formally the word that goes with the person who drinks the kava or yaqona immediately after his Chief. The person who drinks the kava (or RABE) after the Chief or Head of State is called the Matanivanua

Tabua – (Tam-BOO-wah) – Whale’s tooth

Bua-ta –(Boor-TAR) – highly polished wood from the bua tree (frangipani tree)

Turivakitabua – (TOOREE-Varkey-TAMBOO-wah) – Traditional announcement to herald the Chief’s presence

Kamunaga – (CAR-moo-NUNG-ngha) formal name for tabua (whale’s tooth)

Masi – (Mar-SEE) paper mulberry tree (broussonetia papyrifera) traditional cloth