Tavakubu village has an invisible ‘m’ and is pronounced Tavakumbu in the Fijian language. Quite the opposite of the silent ‘k’ in English which is there but we do not pronounce it.
After being invited to join a traditional Kava ceremony in this small village on the main island of Viti Levu, Fiji, I discover a most mystifying legend which also seems to be invisible to the outside world.
I enter a colorfully painted wooden house, raised on poles, a simple, typical local dwelling. Surrounding the cluster of modest shacks, are immaculate lawns, banana, coconut and breadfruit trees. It is early Saturday evening and there is a flurry of activity as most villagers are preparing for the Sunday ‘lovo’, a Fijian earth oven, used to cook vegetables and on special occasions, a pig.
Being an avid vegetarian as well as a Hebrew, I offer to help cut up the vegetables rather than deal with the pig and am handed a small wooden chopping board and a blunt knife without a handle. I feel comfortable and warm, sharing the task with my Fijian friends, sitting in a circle on the woven mat in a sunlit room.
We peel, cut, slice and laugh as more tribe members amble in to join the festivities. Beside us is another wide circle of people already passing around the mixed kava in individual bilo’s (coconut shell cups). I am offered my first cup and I welcome the taste of the powdered root and water mix and feel privileged to be part of such an ancient ritual. The first cup numbs my tongue as usual and I prefer to listen rather than to talk.
I am introduced to so many tribe members I cannot possibly remember all the names, so I don’t even try. A few names stick in my mind though, like Samsoni, Reuven, Elijah and Joseph. We complete our task and join the big circle as the sun set glows through the open windows.
I settle in for the Kava session and I am in no hurry as I am to stay until after tomorrows festive lunch. I am enjoying myself and am absorbing the sights, sounds and smells like a sponge, thirsty for new experiences.
Samsoni, a well- built man in his fifties, sits near me, dressed in a casual sulu (skirt) and a flowery shirt. He catches my eyes and asks “so Maiyan, I have heard that you come from Israel, the Holy land, is this true?”
“Yes”, I answer, “It’s true.”
I notice that he has drawn the attention of everyone in the circle and they all lean forward to hear the discussion.
“So, Maiyan, do you know where the Ark is?”
This takes me by surprise and I let out a little giggle for lack of words. Silence hangs in the air and I am pushed for an explanation. I feel a bit disappointed to let them down.
“Well, nobody really knows I guess, although there are a few theories.”
I am passed another bilo and I drink saying ‘Bula’ and clap three times as is the custom.
“You see,” he continues, “the Fijian people look different to the other Pacific island nations, yes?”
“Yes”, I answer,” to me you look more of African descent, which is a bit of a puzzle.”
“Well, there is a legend among us Fijians, about King Solomon and Sheeva.”
He has got my undivided attention and I am fascinated.
“You mean that the Ark is buried in Ethiopia?”
“No, it is buried on Mana island”, he says with confidence.
“Where is Mana island?” I ask
“Not far from the mainland, not far from here.”
”Wow,” I manage to utter, “how did it get there?”
He continues to explain that one of the sons of Sheeva and King Solomon had visited his father in Ethiopia and requested that he be given the Ark, to take on a journey. His father refused but his son tricked him and with the help of his mother acquired the Ark and proceeded on a long and treacherous journey by boat to the Pacific.
Solomon islands were also named after this legend, where he passed before arriving to Mana where the treasure is believed to have been buried or lost in a storm. The son who brought the ‘box of blessings’ to Mana island is believed to be the Fijian connection to Africa and where its ancestry lies hidden.
“So you see, we are family” Samsoni said again.
“There are things we have kept, like the practice of circumcision.”
Well, that really got me thinking.
“Ok,” I said, “so, where did you get your names from, the missionaries?”
Everyone laughed at my ignorance.
“We got these names long before the missionaries” he said.
“We got these names long before my ancestors ate Thomas Baker!”
“Ok,” I said, taking my turn with the bilo.
“And they ate Thomas Baker because he tried to change you?”
“No, no, because he touched the high chief’s head, a sign of disrespect punishable by death.”
Till today, it is taboo in Fiji to touch someone else’s head, especially someone with higher social standing. Lucky for outsiders, today if someone makes this mistake, the most likely reaction is a nervous laugh and a patient explanation as to why one should rather not insult the Fijian by touching his head.
Reuven and Joseph had joined in with the storytelling and then Elijah asked “Maiyan, what are the names of your children?”
I answered “Keshet, my son, means rainbow in Hebrew, the rainbow after the flood. Mistorin, means mystery in Hebrew, for all the mysteries in the universe and all the things we cannot know.”
Elijah leaned over showing me his hand. “Do you see the tattoo?”
“No, pass the candle.”
He held his tattoo under the light.
On the side of his hand was a clear, black tattoo which looked like it had been there a long time.
Well, that did it. My hair stood on end and I felt like the room was filled with ancient secrets, lost connections and past meetings all rolled into one very surreal evening. The ancestors were hanging around and laughing because we have lost our memory.
I felt like the Kava root was a catalyst for the past to meet the future and all that is in between. The root, the source, mixed with water, the nurturer, shared between friends and that ultimately we are all connected in ways we cannot see or remember.
A true story by Maiyan Karidi
This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of the Cape Town Jewish Chronicle.