Rotuma’s kava ceremony

Rotuma’s kava ceremony

Rotuman Language Week celebrates one of the rarest languages in the world. Public Programmes Specialist Jacki Leota-Mua and members of the Rotuman community transport us from the safety of our rāhui bubbles to Rotuma, 500 kilometres north of Fiji, to discover more about the island’s kava ceremonies.

Read Jacki and the NZRF’s blog in te reo Māori 
Read Jacki and the NZRF’s blog in Rotuman 

Delving into Te Papa’s collections

To celebrate Rotuman Language Week (10–16 May 2020), Rotuman artist Ravai Titifanue (The Colour Closet) and I delved into Te Papa’s Collections Online to see what we could find related to Rotuma. We teamed up with Professors Vilsoni Hereniko and Alan Howard, both from the University of Hawai‘i and members of the New Zealand Rotuman Fellowship.

A Thomas Andrew photograph, taken in the late 19th or early 20th century of an old kava ceremony, quickly became a talking point and a springboard for online research, conversation, and storytelling.

What is kava?

Kava is made from the roots of Piper methysticum, a plant found throughout the Pacific. Historically, it is known as the drink of the gods, enabling us mere mortals to commune with the divine. Its calming effect relieves stress and anxiety. Its medicinal properties are well known even in the Western world, where the crushed powder is capsulated and bottled as a herbal remedy.

The kava ceremony

The fakpeje are ancient chants at kava ceremonies that speak to the origins of the ritual on Rotuma. The mạnu‘ are exclamations, marking the beginning and the end of the fakpeje.

Composed, narrated and recorded by Master Ieli Erasito. Copyright New Zealand Rotuman Fellowship Inc. 2020. You can see the text of the fakpeje below and read more about the meaning of the chants at the end of this page.

On Rotuma, the conduit for this sacred ceremony is always three young women. Their purity is symbolised by a soroi, or coral paste applied to the head, a lock of hair called a sope, and the apei, a mat that today is still the most esteemed cultural treasure.

Apei mats – ‘woven gods’

Sepia image of 15 people sitting on flax mats under trees
Rotuman Marriage, 1890-1910, by Thomas Andrew. Te Papa (O.001003)

The chief in the photo is also wearing an apei, and is identified by the elevated place of honour upon which he sits, called the päega. The apei is the topmost mat, although in recent years satin cloth has sometimes been placed on top of the apei.

The inclusion of other mats will depend very much on the host family. They decide on the variety and whether the päega will consist of Rotuman and Fijian mats.

If the ‘eap Fiti (agruạ Fiti, or large Fijian mat) is included, it is the first mat laid down and is called pupuiạg ta. The big mats are folded in a particular way by the two women who arrange the päega.

From the ground up, they are:

  • ‘eap Fiti (agruạ Fiti, or large Fijian mat)
  • ‘eap Rotuma (agruạ Rotuma, or large Rotuman mat)
  • ‘eap ma ‘on fạua (Rotuman mats smaller in length than the agrua)
  • ‘eap hap Fiti (small Fijian mats)
  • apei (white mat).

Professor Vilsoni Hereniko describes apei as ‘woven gods’, representing the interconnectedness of communities, who even in the diaspora are still plaited tightly together.

Women’s role in the kava ceremony

Today, the soroi are no longer worn, but women retain the dignity of this sacred ritual, imbuing kava with life-giving mana for the chiefs to consume. Each has a specific role to play.

Professor Alan Howard says: ‘Kava bowls are brought forward, attended by three young women. One mixed the (previously pulverised) kava with water and strained it through a clean cloth, the second assisted by pouring fresh water and filling cups, and the third acted as cup bearer.’

We hope that next year, we can celebrate Rotuman Language Week in true Rotuman style with an event that features these protocols. The tikanga may change due to Covid-19 restrictions, but its essence will remain.



These are the words for the fakpeje in the audio above.

Mạnu‘ ……. Uuuäää,
Lạgi ta iiiri…..irimea ma forạumea, Raho ma ‘ona kạunohoga,
La huạ‘ia ‘osa hanua, Siiiiria
Hȧnlepi he rua, ferefere ‘e ‘ona reeeere
Tafaga ta jiiiiji fua, se soloag ne asa.
Vakạia se li‘u lala jaraaava
Peạu ma vạlu kafa ‘ona sama
Mạnumạnu ‘e huga totoooka
Terạni ta siri ma gasava ta vạạạhi
Mạnumạnu ‘e rere ne li‘u laaala.
Vakạia se Lạgi ma räääieof Siria
Moea Tikitik, Moea Lagör, Moea Mutuạ‘
Hefu tupu‘a, la kaveeeia ‘ona sala.
Nihua ‘ona ‘afa se hạfu Kamea,
Ma fupuena Rotuma
‘Ạtumotu ne ‘osa mäeeeva.
Hȧnlepi he rua a‘sooookoa
‘Äp‘äp ‘ona Raaah, ma fere‘ạkimea
Kav hu fatat, la re‘ia ‘ona fon kava.
‘E hạfu Kamea, la ‘imoa ‘ona kaaava
Ka sei täe la pạrua ‘ona kava?
Ne Gagaj se ‘ạmiạr ‘e ‘äe ko Raaah.
He‘o se sa‘a sine te Hatana
La figalelei ma la mạnuuu‘ua
‘Ona kava.
La Fapuuuia hanuạ ‘ona Rah
‘E rere ne hạfu Kamea
Ma ạlạlum‘ạạạạkia ‘ona huạ‘i
Se av se ‘es tohiga

The Fakpeje (peje or pejke – to speak) is a traditional ceremonial chant that takes place within the ‘foh kava (kava ceremony) of a formal Rotuman cultural presentation.

The fakpeje above captures the journey taken by Raho (supposed founder of Rotuma) and his family in search of new land to settle, and the first kava ceremony on the Haf Kamea (a rock outcrop in the middle of the ocean). It describes poetically the natural elements, weather, winds, sea and its swells and ocean currents, and the stars as beacons to navigate the journey.

Composing a Fakpeje is a challenge to encourage our younger generation. Although the older language used by our ancestors is lost, it is a narrative or hanuju (story) retold in poetic form.

Further reading

We were not able to include all the wonderful details discussed, but below is a list of resources for those interested in further reading:

Gardiner, J S. ‘The Natives of Rotuma’. In the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27 (1898): 424

Hereniko, V. (1995) Woven Gods: Female Clowns and Power in Rotuma. University of Hawai‘i Press and The Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 1995
Find out more about this print book

Howard, A, and Rensel, J. ‘Rotuma: Interpreting a Wedding’. In Portraits of Culture: Ethnographic Originals, eds Melvin Ember, Carol Ember, and David Levinson. Prentice Hall, 1994

Jarman, R. Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, in the “Japan”, employed in the Sperm Whale Fishery, under the Command of Captain John May. Longman and Co, and Charles Tilt, 1838

Ministry for Pacific Peoples Rotuman Language Week resources

New Zealand Rotuman Fellowship group on Facebook


Read Jacki and the NZRF’s blog in te reo Māori
Read Jacki and the NZRF’s blog in Rotuman 

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