In Fiji’s isolated villages, custom holds that a visitor needs to ask permission to enter by offering a tangled bundle of kava roots as sevusevu, a gesture of respect.

As sailors planning to spend a couple of months exploring Fiji’s outer islands, my family of three needed to be well-prepared. We had fishing gear, staple foods and a first aid kit with remedies for everything from sunburn to jellyfish stings. We also had a few sarong-type wraps called sulas and a big pile of earthy-smelling roots called kava.

Kava, known locally as yaqona, is a mild analgesic and stress reliever made from the root of the piper methstyicum plant. It’s also an important part of Fijian culture. Custom holds that a visitor needs to ask permission to enter a village, explaining their friendly intentions and offering a tangled bundle of kava roots as sevusevu, a gesture of respect. Much the way a Western guest brings a bottle of wine to the host of a dinner party, I’d assumed.

In truth, in deeply ritualized Fijian society, sevusevu sets up a more complex relationship between the host and the hosted. When a visitor has their sevusevu accepted, they become part of the larger village family. By receiving something back – usually sharing in grog (the kava root mixed with water) – the visitor acknowledges this obligation. In some villages, the ancient ritual has died out, while in others it’s not much more than a money-making tourism activity. Our best chance for experiencing an authentic ceremony, we were told, was to visit the small, isolated villages in Fiji’s outer islands.

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“Do you think this is a sevusevu village?” my daughter Maia asked as we looked at the thatch and brick houses of Nabouwala village on the island of Vanua Levu. The previous two villages we’d stopped in hadn’t been, but once again we dressed in our sulas and set off for shore with our ungainly bouquet of kava to avoid any potential disrespect.

In Nabouwala, we asked some children for the turaga-ni-koro, or chief, and they escorted us past small homes and tidy gardens to the ubiquitous rugby match, where they presented us to Waisea, the headman. Waisea told us the chief – an elderly woman of 97 – would indeed receive our sevusevu. He tutored us on the custom’s protocol, but after trying to teach my husband Evan the complex string of Fijian, we decided that Waisea should speak on our behalf.

So Waisea called out the traditional greeting (instead of knocking) outside the chief’s thatched bure, or meeting house, and had us slip off our shoes, hats and sunglasses. We entered the room and were seated on a woven grass mat in front of a tiny, smiling woman with a halo of white hair.

Andisolmbe is one of the few female chiefs in Fiji. And despite her age, she seemed delighted by our visit. Waisea explained her lineage and the extent of her territory, introduced us to her great granddaughters and then repeated the story of who we were and how we’d reached the village. After clapping (mostly) on cue, Waisea told us our kava was accepted by the village and we were now brothers and sisters and Maia was a daughter.

After taking a few photos with our new relatives, we were invited to return that evening to drink some of the kava and complete the ceremony. As we walked back to the bure later that day, we could hear the root being pounded to a powder in an oversized mortar and pestle. After being mixed with water and strained through cloth, I accepted my beginner’s ‘low-tide’ sized coconut husk bowl. I was prepared for the grog to taste like dishwater. But to me, the room-temperature drink tasted like spicy yerba mate, a combination of earthy and grassy flavours with a hint of bitter and the bite of pepper.

In this, the most formal of the ceremonies we attended, I clapped once and said the all-purpose word bula when accepting my bowl. After finishing it, I returned the bowl with a vinaka, or thanks, before clapping three more times. I was so caught up in the details of the ritual that I missed the significance of being accepted as part of the fabric of a village. It wasn’t until our aquatic wandering took us to Gunu, a village of 350 on Naviti Island in Fiji’s Yasawas archipelago, that the tradition’s deeper meaning took hold.

Arriving on the island, local children directed us to give our sevusevu to Bill, one of the village’s headmen. Bill took our kava without fanfare or ritual, but still made it clear our sevusevu was accepted and we were welcome. Then he sent us with his young daughter on a tour of the village. She was told to introduce us to everyone as family. A day later, we found ourselves sitting with sisters Lewa and Vesi, trying to be helpful as they showed us how they wove grass voivoi mats and bracelets for tourists from dried pandanus leaves. Then they gave us the bracelets and offered us a mat.

The constant small exchanges of favours and gifts ensure everyone is interconnected and no-one goes without.

Life in a Fijian subsistence village like this one relies on everyone doing their part. We quickly realised the constant small exchanges of favours and gifts ensure everyone is interconnected and no-one goes without. Already, we had discovered that having a camera and the ability to print photos was a precious commodity; we took formal pictures for government documents and family photos for far-away relatives.

One afternoon we visited the school, and after touring each of the classes and learning about the school day, we presented the head teacher with money and much-needed school supplies. The next evening, the village reciprocated by throwing us a special, celebratory meal called a lovo.

When we arrived at the bure, the men were digging at an earthen oven where heated rocks had been placed earlier in the day. When the leaves were pulled off and the smoky steam cleared, the women and children gathered around to collect bundles of chicken, cassava, white yam and stuffed pumpkin from the pit.

Draping salusalus (leis) around our necks, Lewa and Vesi seated us on the voivoi mat around a long, laden tablecloth. After explaining the food – the fish caught by that uncle, the breadfruit cooked by that aunt, the pulusami (a dish made from taro leaves and coconut cream) by that sister – Lewa scolded us into filling our plates. As we ate, we complimented the cooks, talked and joked and ate some more.

The meal reminded us of all the subtle ways the village works as a collective. Individually, no single family could have produced the feast. But as a community there was enough for everyone.

Individually, no single family could have produced the feast – but as a community there was enough for everyone.

Gunu may have stayed a pretty memory, kept bright by photos and the small gifts of shells and bracelets we’d collected. But thanks to the internet, we stayed in touch with Lewa through social media. She sent us messages about daily life, and occasionally we got a picture when a sister, brother or cousin graduated from high school, married or had children – or when their rugby team did especially well. Then a few years later, we received a troubling message: Gunu village had taken a direct hit from Cyclone Winston. Lewa’s home was gone, the crops were destroyed and the people were going without basic food and medical supplies.

Lewa didn’t ask us for help, but the memory of that sevusevu and its meaning came back. We offered to wire funds so she could buy emergency supplies.

We had asked for permission to enter Gunu village, and in doing so we got the opportunity to become part of the lives of a group of villagers on a small island that was now halfway around the world. In return, to honour our part of the sevusevu tradition, we took the opportunity to fulfil our obligation to them, although our contribution was just a small part of what was needed (their collective perseverance did the rest).

A few months after Cyclone Winston, another unexpected message came from Lewa. However, this one was a happy one: she was having a baby. She and her mother had decided that her son should be named after family, and she asked if she could name him after us. Though he wouldn’t sport a traditional Fijian name, little Ceilidh would carry the name of our boat, deepening the ties between us – a detail we’d never planned for when we set off to explore Fiji, but one we’ll cherish forever.

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