Tuesday, March 21, 2006

From Kava To Cargo (and Back Again)

You learn something new every day, and today for me it was cargo cults. Leafing through last month's Smithsonian magazine (I'm always behind), I came upon an article describing the religious practices of the small population of the island of Tanna, Vanuatu. Apparently, besides being a location for one season of Survivor, Vanuatu claims, on Tanna, one of the last of the cargo cults, a religious sect devoted to worshipping the spirit or personification of previous visitors who brought modern goods to the natives' remote locations. It seems these cults can be traced back to at least the 19th century in the South Pacific and North America, although I wouldn't be surprised if there were unrecorded instances much earlier. After all, to the Hawaiians, James Cook was a god, before they wised up and killed him. Fast forward to WWII, and you can see why a lot more cargo cults started up. Western troops came in droves to the isolated islands in the South Pacific, bringing huge amounts of equipment, food and other matériel with them. Locals must have been agog at the influx of durable goods, not to mention the food that practically rained from the sky, either by landing strip or parachute drop. It only stands to reason that islanders figured that if they performed certain rituals, such as cutting imitation landing strips, donning imitation uniforms or worshipping a god that was somehow connected to all this wealth, they might be showered with riches, too. In Tanna, this manifested as the Jon Frum movement, in which a white, American military messiah promised to bring cargo back to the islanders if they prayed to him. Jon Frum is currently thought to reside alternately in the local volcano or America, as he can travel by underground tunnel between the two, and 60 years later Tanna residents still pray to him and celebrate Jon Frum day annually with dancing, singing and mock United States military drills.

It didn't hurt that the originators of the movement, a group of local men imbibing kava, told everyone that Jon Frum wanted them to turn against the French colonists and Presbyterian missionaries who had taken over the island. Rather than follow the repressive practices of the occupiers, they said, indigenous people should renounce Christian ways, get rid of Western goods and return to the old ways of custom. The most important of these old ways was not working in near-slavery conditions for the white men, but also included were ending the prohibition of dancing, singing and yes, the frequent drinking of kava.

Kava is a traditional drink derived from a plant that grows in the area. It is the same kava that is used in the widely popular Kava-Kava extracts and pills alternative medicine lovers take here, except in its original, more potent form. You see, kava is a narcotic, which, depending on the quantity ingested, can result in effects from a tingling of the lips, mild sedation and a sense of well-being to, in extreme cases, hallucination. Various traditions throughout the South Pacific call for ingesting Kava, generally as a drink of powdered root in water, from every day to high holy days only, from every villager to only men or kings, depending on your island. All of them agree, however, that drinking kava is uplifting in some way, it numbs pain and it feels good. I have sampled this elixir myself, in a small bar in Hawaii, where it is called 'awa. I've long been a veritable teetotaler, not just through the natural process of becoming older and holding a day job, but because the anti-depressants I take seem to alter the effects of alcohol. Liquor tends to give me very little buzz. Instead, I just get tired and then don't sleep well. When I heard about 'awa shortly before my trip to the big island, I figured it might be fun to try. Touted as relatively harmless if somewhat unappetizing, 'awa is part of a traditional local custom I could experience, and maybe get a little mood elevation while at it.

Kava lived up to the hype. Served in a coconut half-shell, the muddy-looking, room-temperature brew tasted mostly like - well, mud - with distinct overtones of bitter twigs. It wasn't terrible, so much as puzzling, as in "who first got the bright idea to drink this?" Almost immediately, however, my lips began to tingle, and a numbing sensation progressed down the back of my throat. I momentarily panicked at this, but it didn't seem to get any worse. Instead, I started to feel... loopy. Happy, calm, and a little bit giggly, but almost too serene to laugh. I had another cup, and the sense of content, lethargic one-with-the-worldness expanded. I would have happily consumed more if my girlfriend hadn't become somewhat alarmed, not knowing what might come of this, considering my established hypersensitivity to drugs of any kind.

In short, this shit was the bomb, and I was sad to realize that there's almost nowhere to get it on the mainland, where alcohol is the more potent social mind-altering drink of choice. It seems that there was once a kava bar in the Village, but it went belly-up before I found it, and I haven't yet heard of anywhere local that sells it. I'd pretty much put this out of my mind until reading the Jon Frum article and musing on the role of kava in this socio-religious movement. I could empathize with the Tanna folk - if God doesn't want you to sing, dance or drink kava, just what kind of God can He be? The upshot of the Jon Frum movement is that the Tanna islanders shooed the colonists off of their home, but although they have gained independence, the cult still signifies a strange reverence of Western ways and goods despite rejecting Western rule. More worldly natives are sometimes embarrassed by this "backwards" group, while others revere them as some of the first freedom fighters in the island chain. Meanwhile, splinter cults have developed that incorporate more traditional or Christian customs, including the flock of one Prophet Fred, who recently came to bloody blows with the main Frum devotees. Still, while this may seem bizarre and somewhat sad to the casual first-world observer, our beliefs are not all that different, at the core, and the islanders know it. One notes:

"We have been waiting only 60 years for Jon Frum to come back. Christians have been waiting 2000 years for Jesus Christ. Why are we the ones who are thought of as strange?"

Another says:

"God appeared to the people of Tanna in the form of John Frum, just as he appeared to the Jews as Jesus, and to the Indians as Buddha. It's the same message, the same revelation. Our colonial struggle has happened all across the world, across all different cultures. John Frum is the messiah of all of us who have had the same struggle."

Which just goes to show their practices may be odd, but not necessarily stupid. Not to mention that, ultimately, we are all praying for and dreaming of manna from heaven. Whether it's maxing out the credit card for home entertainment or performing mock military drills, yearning for the winning lotto numbers or Coca-Cola to fall from the sky, we're not, at the core, all that different. Which also means, South Pacific or New York City, I deserve some damn kava now and then. Fortunately, I don't have to perform any intricate rituals to get it. It looks like chanting the sacred numbers of Master Card to the gods of the Internet should do.

Interesting reading:
In John They Trust
The Jon Frum Movement
The Last Cargo Cult
”Cargo Cult” on Wikipedia
HerbalGram Kava: An Overview

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