Research summary: The importance of kava to Tongan culture

Picture of Kavahana

A research study done in 2019 looked at the importance of kava in Tongan culture outside of Tonga. The researchers interviewed 12 Tongan men living in Auckland, New Zealand in a qualitative study. 

The participants all started drinking kava between the ages of 17 and 20 years. Many of them admitted to not liking the taste at first, but got used to it after several kava sessions. They identified four main reasons for drinking kava:

Social substance: most of the participants said they started using kava because there were limited social activities in Tonga.

Establishing and reaffirming relationships: Drinking kava has been a way to form and build friendships with other Tongan men. The social aspects of kava encourages discussion and conversation over physical violence.

Status: In some communities, kava was a plant that only those who had a high social status had access to. So for some participants drinking it made them feel nobel connected to the plant.

Alternative to alcohol: Older men mentioned that they used kava instead of alcohol, as alcohol was hard to find and kava has similar effects without the negative effects

Medicinal properties: Men in the group discussed using kava for treating stomach pains, flu, and cancer. 

Participants talked about the different ways they would drink kava. They all mentioned the importance of kava to Tongan culture and how Tongans drink kava at important events like weddings, funerals, family functions, community gatherings and welcoming ceremonies. So even say that “alcohol is for Palangi’s [Europeans], but kava is for Tongans”

Some mentioned binge sessions where the would drink kava from 9 or 10pm until the next morning. Others mentioned it’s used to relax before plantation work in Tonga, and they mention that more younger Tongans are starting to use kava. 

But in most cases the men said that kava strengthened their relationship with family, friends and community. However there were some mentions of negative effects like sleepiness and laziness when they drank too much. This sometimes affected their social relationships, because they only wanted to sleep and put them at higher risk of hemorrhoids because they weren’t moving as much.

Why this is important

This study highlighted the importance of kava for Tongan communities outside of Tonga. The ceremony and traditions are still strong despite most of the western focus being on the health benefits like sleep and anxiety and its similar effects to alcohol. This is a great reminder of the strength kava has in pacific island communities all over the world and is something all kava users should remember and honor.

Link to article is here: The Social, cultural and medicinal use of Kava for twelve Tongan born men living in Auckland, New Zealand

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Research summary: The importance of kava to Tongan culture


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