By Christie Jones, September 27, 2008
In Pohnpei, we encountered two cultural practices that piqued my curiosity. The first is the ancient tradition of consuming sakau. Sakau (called kava in other parts of the Pacific) is a thick dark drink made from pounding the roots of a pepper plant – Piper methysticum. In Ponpei, the root pulp is mixed with water then wrung out using strips of Hibiscus tiliaceus bark (the same material used to make ‘grass’ or ‘Hawaiian’ skirts).
Though on this trip we did not have the opportunity to partake in the ritual, we were fortunate enough to see the drink being prepared. I am told that sakau has a relaxing effect on the body without impairing judgment. Sakau is consumed in a social setting and even before important meetings.
It was striking to see the impact of sakau cultivation on native forests. While in the field, time and again, we saw patches of forest high in the hills that had been cleared for sakau. The Nature Conservancy and Conservation Society of Pohnpei are working to strike a balance between sakau cultivation and preservation of native forests.
The other curious cultural practice is the chewing of betel nut. This is a relatively new but widespread phenomenon, becoming common in Pohnpei in the past 20 years. Betel nuts are the immature fruits of the palm Areca catechu. The nuts are split open and powdered lime and Piper leaf are added. Sometimes a piece of a cigarette is also inserted. The nut is closed with the contents inside then inserted in the mouth and chewed. It is similar to chewing tobacco in that one must spit and not swallow. That resulting juice by some chemical reaction turns crimson red. You can see the telltale signs on the smile of a betel nut chewer – red stained teeth. I am told chewing the nut gives one a quick ‘buzz’ that only lasts a few minutes.
As with sakau, betel nut palms are appearing almost everywhere on Pohnpei. They are typically grown as yard plants, but we are now seeing them spread into native forest. They occupy the same growing niche as the native Ponapea palms and might one day outcompete them.