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Exploring the Culture of Fiji

While visiting the islands of Fiji we experienced the pleasure of their wonderful hospitality as well as some of the traditions of the Fijian people. Our first experience was with "Bula", the common greeting that means "hello". We couldn't go anywhere and not be greeted by an enthusiastic "BULA" during our stay at Paradise Taveuni resort. The staff also greeted us by our first name whenever we encountered them on the grounds or on the boats. And each evening we were serenaded with lovely Fijian music during dinnertime.

On Wednesday, December 13 after we finished our dives at Rainbow Reef, we traveled to Kioa, a small island in Fiji, an outlier to Vanua Levu which is one of Fiji's two main islands. Situated opposite Buca Bay, Kioa was purchased by settlers from Vaitupu atoll in Tuvalu, who came between 1947 and 1962.

Before our group went ashore the women changed into their sarongs and the men put on the traditional "Sulu" to show respect for their customs. Visitors to Fiji bring a light tropical wardrobe: bathing suits, shorts, T-shirts. We soon discovered “sulus” (known throughout the Pacific as pareau, lavalava or sarong) are also a must for both men and women. The wrap-around “sulu” is Fiji's most distinctive and versatile form of dress.

The population of Vaitupu, their original home island from 1860 to 1900 was estimated to be 400 people. Vaitupu is home to the second-largest population in Tuvalu, numbering 1,576 per the 2002 Census and 1,555 in the 2012 census. Despite its relatively large size, Vaitupu became so overcrowded during the 1940s that a number of families migrated to Fiji to live on Kioa Island. Neli Lifuka was the magistrate on Vaitupu from 1945 to 1951. He was instrumental in collecting the funds to purchase Kioa Island in Fiji. Initially 37 people migrated from Vaitupu to live on Kioa Island; within a decade, more than 235 people followed.

Kioa is one of two islands in Fiji populated by migrant communities from the Pacific Islands, the other being Rabi, also in the Vanua Levu Group and home to a displaced Banaban community. Early in 2005, the Fijian government decided to grant full citizenship to the Kioa and Rabi Islanders. As a culmination of a decade-long quest for naturalization, a formal ceremony was held December 2005 to award 566 citizenship certificates to residents of the islands and their descendants (some of whom now live elsewhere in Fiji), which entitles them to provincial and national assistance for rural development.

When we arrived on Kioa Island we were each crowned with a fresh flower wreath. As we all gathered in their community hall, one of the elders shared a bit about the history of their people. The community proceeded to greet us with their traditional music and dance.

On Thursday, December 14, back at Paradise Taveuni Resort we celebrated with the staff and other guests a traditional Fijian Lovo banquet and kava ceremony. A lovo is an underground oven used as a traditional Fijian method of cooking food in large quantities to bring together communities or groups. It can be likened to a Fijian version of a barbeque or grilling, with somewhat more smoky flavors. Everything from fish to chicken to pork can be cooked in a lovo and the meat will sometimes be bundled up in banana leaves to retain the moisture. Once the food is inside, the pit is covered in banana leaves, soil or potato sacks and left to slow cook for several hours.

The meal was introduced with the ceremonial kava. In Fiji, a kava ceremony is a ritual in every village you enter as well as a key feature on your Fiji resort 'things to do list'. It is commonplace for Fijian families and friends to gather together on a daily basis and enjoy kava together. It is what Fijians commonly refer to as 'Fiji time'.

Kava, otherwise known as yaqona, or quite simply, grog, is the traditional national drink of Fiji. It is a mildly narcotic and sedative drink made from the crushed root of the yaqona (pronounced yang-GO-na) strained with water. It is served in a large communal bowl as part of the traditional kava ceremony. When drunk, it creates a pleasant, numb feeling around the mouth, lips and tongue, as well as a sense of calm and relaxation.

Yet despite the naturally calming effects of the drink, the true experience lies in partaking of the complete kava ceremony. Kava is traditionally served as part of a ceremonial atmosphere, most commonly in welcoming guests into a village and on important occasions.

The kava ceremony focuses around the communal Kava tanoa (bowl). Guests sit in a circle around the bowl which is placed in front of the leader. The ceremony commences with the actual production of the kava. The plant is pounded and the pulp placed into a cloth sack and mixed with water. The end result is a brownish coloured liquid – the Kava gold. It is then strained and ready for drinking.

Once you receive your Kava, clap your hands once with a cupped hand making a hollow sound and exclaim: Bula! If you can, drink your Kava in one 'gulp'. Then clap again with your hands cupped – and say: 'Maca' (pronounced maa-tha), as a means of confirming 'the cup has been drained'!

I drained three cups full of kava during the ceremony and felt my lips become a bit numb. After dinner, Karen and I watching the sunset then retired early so we could be up at 6:00 AM for breakfast and on the boat by 6:30 AM for our last day of diving.


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