Sevusevu in Yalobi Village

Our first stop in the Yasawas was Waya, the southern most island in the chain. We anchored in a small bay near the pass between southern Waya and Wayaleilei. There was a village on the beach, and we were planning to spend a few days snorkeling and exploring. Dominic, my mom, and I went ashore to introduce ourselves to the the local village, ask permission to anchor in their front yard, and perhaps be invited to a Sevusevu ceremony.

We were greeted first by a three year old, Tuna. He tottled toward the dinghy, grabbed the handle on the bow, and tried to help pull the boat ashore. We were soon joined by a gaggle of kids and a man who introduced himself as Mayor Jim.

That's Tuna on the right:

Mayor Jim looked to be in his sixties and introduced himself as the local town leader. He offered my mom a hand, Tuna grabbed Dominic’s, and invited us onto the grassy area at the edge of the village behind the beach. My Mom and I sat with a group of women on a woven mat in the shade of the trees; Dominic went to the shade on the opposite of the one-room house to hang with Mayor Jim and his cousin’s brother’s son, Papa Joe.

Dominic and Mayor Jim on the mat, as Mom is offered VIP seating:

As they got to know each other, Dominic presented our gift of waka for Sevusevu to Mayor Jim.

Sevusevu is a Fijian welcome ritual. The tradition is that upon arriving the guest presents the village elders with waka, a pepper root that grows wild on the island. The Fijians use waka to make kava, a very mildly narcotic drink alternately referred to as Fijian beer or Fijian rum and is the happy hour beverage of choice for Fijian men. As part of Sevusevu, kava is shared between guest and host, and the newcomers are taken into the village as family.

Having read about the tradition in our cruising guide, we stocked up on waka at the fruit and veggie market in Latauka. Waka roots come in dried, unruly bundles and are stacked in three-foot pyramids on the market tables. The prices are currently high—double their usual rate as so much of the crop suffered cyclone damage—$40 US per kilo. Mayor Jim accepted the gift, saying a prayer and planning a Sevusevu ceremony for that evening.

Meanwhile, Mom and I chatted with the ladies about where we were from, how long we were staying, and what the weather was like on our passage from New Zealand. We walked through the village, to the community center, and to the school. Dominic took a look at a faulty flashlight, and the kiddos were thoughtful enough to make sure my mom always had a chair.

Views from the school grounds:

We returned for the ceremony at six, and everyone in the village looked showered and refreshed. We were glad we had freshened up after the heat of the day, as well. Mayor Jim and the town children met us at the beach, held our hands, and took us to Mayor Jim’s house.

We sat on mats on the patio outside his home. There was a large wooden bowl filled with water and a stack of coconut shells. The pastor never arrived, so Mayor Jim said the welcome prayer. He was speaking in English sprinkled with Fijian, but it was hard to make out exactly what he was saying. We wondered if he wasn’t improvising in the absence of the pastor, but what he said was definitely a prayer, but also a welcome toast and a giving of thanks.

He then laid out the pulverized kava on a newspaper and scooped it into a worn cloth sack. He put it in the water and massaged the sack, turning the water a murky brown.

He tried to explain the clapping sequence we were supposed to perform before and after drinking the kava. It requires a specific style of clapping, cupped, hollow, and slow. It was one clap before drinking, three after, but we never quite got it, and Mayor Jim’s clap was different (a series of quickening claps as the recipient drank the kava), which confused us further. But we clapped, drank, and were merry.

Mayor Jim’s wife joined us, holding their granddaughter. Tuna, his twin sister Leilei, and the rest of their gang soon joined us and tumbled in and out of our laps. Soon the commuter boats returned to the village, bringing home the family members who went to school in other towns or worked in the resorts.

We sat on Mayor Jim’s porch, meeting everyone in town, when darkness fell. My mom stood up, shed her cane, set her poi aflame, and began to dance.

Everyone in the village gathered around to watch and demanded an encore. They used pieces of plywood and an overturned diesel jig to make a drum to accompany her. She was a sensation!

She made one admirer in particular, Joe, who is 28 and works as a fire dancer in the resort nearby. He helped us back to our dinghy, wooing my mother, insisting she give him her contact information so that he could join us and dance with fire in California.

Mom didn’t keep her date with Joe the next afternoon. We upped anchor to explore the anchorage on the north end of the bay, none of us too surprised that my mom left a broken heart in her wake.