A Writer Writes

Heather Kaschmitter was a Youth and Community Development Volunteer on the island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia. She was in the 69th group of PCVs to be sent to Micronesia. While there, she started a library at an elementary school and taught English part time, and all the while, she gathered stories of the island that someday she hoped to build into a book. Here is one of the stories she’ll tell.

Sakau Moon Ring

by Heather Kaschmitter (Micronesia 2002–04)

Disclaimer
For me to write about sakau, I beg the forgiveness of the Pohnpeians, and any other culture that drinks kava.  As an American, there is no way I will ever be able to understand or appreciate the importance of this beverage completely. My understanding is that sakau was historically a sacred beverage. In the past, women were forbidden from drinking, and it is still looked down upon, even though women do drink now, and even run their own markets.

Before markets, sakau was consumed at kamadipws, or feasts, funerals, or at other important occasions, including welcoming guests or begging for forgiveness. The closest thing I can compare it to is Native Americans smoking the peace pipe.  But, being white, I can’t claim to understand Native American culture, either.

That being said, I did have many sakau-drinking experiences, quite a few in which I was the only woman, white or Pohnpeian, in the circle. I want you to understand where I come from when I write about sakau.  I only hope I do not sound ignorant or offensive.

At the same time, I aman American, and I have a big mouth, and I have a strong desire to explain my experiences in Pohnpeian culture.

Let me be clear.  Drinking sakau en Pohnpei (kava) is not like drinking beer (sakau en wai).  If most people drink a few beers, they get louder. They want to dostuff, like dance, flirt, or play pool. They feel high on life. With sakau, the more you drink, the slower and quieter you become, and the quieter you want everyone else to be. Even children hanging around know it’s time to settle down and be quiet. They don’t have to be told. Within an hour or two the adults are leaning slightly forward, eyelids almost shut, speech slightly slurred. It’s almost meditative. I can see why it would’ve been used at funerals, or when asking for forgiveness. It makes you quiet and slow. It makes you less defensive. It makes you listen a while before speaking.

I had plenty of so-so or even disgusting experiences with sakau. Most of it has to do with the taste and/or texture.  It was so . . . organic.

Sakau Basics
Pohn takai
(on the rock) is the kind of sakau that’s pounded on a flat basalt rock. Pohn takai is closer to the ceremonial sakau imbibed at funerals or feasts. When making sakau, the roots of a pepper plant (piper methysticum) are washed and scrubbed clean and then pounded.  A bit of water is added to the pounded roots, the mix kneaded like bread, and eventually squeezed through hibiscus bark into a communal coconut shell cup.

It’s the hibiscus that gives pohn takai sakau its mucus-like consistency, and it was difficult not to gag at first.  The taste is like muddy, celery-flavored water, and the first few sips numb the tongue. I learned to sip with my lips tight, so that I could filter stray root fibers, and it was common for people to spit.

Market sakauis made the same way, but more watered down and strained into old fifth bottles or dipped into plastic cups.  Usually there was less hibiscus-mucus, less root. There was a cholera outbreak on Pohnpei back in 2000 due to these market bottles not being washed, and unclean water being used. Although markets had gotten a bit safer by 2002, when I lived on the island, I still had a handful of nights of sleeplessness, nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea.

There was a sakaumarket in Kipar where one could play bingo and drink sakau, and there would usually be a stereo. That was pretty great entertainment for the village.

Sharing a meal or beverage in any culture is a bonding experience, but it’s hard to describe sharing the sakau.  Before everyone is too sakaula, you might make eye contact with one or two people around the circle, and there is a knowing, a small, genuine smile. “Ke sakau, Edder?”  Are you drunk, Heather? “Ei, maing.” Yes, sir. “Ke iouki?”  You like it? “Ehng, iou dohluhl. Kehlail.” Yeah, it’s delicious. Strong. Basically, it’s like taking a shot of scotch-vile stuff-and choking out the words, “That’s some good shit.”

I was able to do better at my Peace Corps job (Youth and Community Development-librarian and part time teacher at the elementary) by communicating with folks around the sakau circle.  Parents were more willing to talk to me about their kids if I was available at this neutral zone.  Important members of the community were more eager to tell me what the community really needed from me and from Peace Corps.  I had shown my humanity by joining them at the sakau circle.

Sakau Moon Ring
There was more than one magical night, too. The one I remember most was the guitar playing in Kitti under a ring-encircled moon.

I got used to the 7:30 pm sundown, sukusuksounds. The chickens would cluck quietly, finding a place to roost for the night in the breadfruit trees. Stone would ring on stone, like the Islamic call to prayer. Most of the time I loved that sound. It was peaceful and beautiful, and experienced pounders would create rhythms together, almost like music. Spokane, my hometown, also had basalt rocks, and sometimes the sound made me feel close to home.

Other times, sukusuk was a lonely sound. Not only did it make me homesick, it made me realize how much of a stranger I would always be here.

The men sitting by the nahs had asked me to drink sakau while I walked by, and I’d said no. It was after a noisy, difficult dinner with my host family, and I was tired and homesick.

But maybe around 8 or so I heard a guitar strumming quietly, a rarity, and some mellow male voices singing along in Pohnpeian. It was really pretty, and a little depressing.

Unlike my formative experiences with the (at best) mediocre singing at most Catholic churches, the majority of Pohnpeians seemed to have a good ear for which key they should be in. The singing in Pohnpeian churches involved bass, treble, alto, soprano — lots of loud, strong, old school Christian singing, a capella.

Sakau singing was different.

Imagine a black Baptist choir doing a rousing rendition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” on a beautiful Sunday morning. Then change it. Remove all of the congregation, all of the women, and most of the choir.  Make all of the men over 40, shirtless, and only partially employed. Imagine they’d imbibed a bottle of whiskey and were in that mellow, quiet, bluesy stage of drunkenness. Make it dark outside, with starlight, moonlight, and a single fluorescent bulb the only illuminations. The men are sitting at a table under a guava tree. The linoleum-covered wooden table has been chewed by termites and mold.  It is crawling with tiny sugar ants. The men’s 88-cent flip-flops are all that’s between the dirt and their gnarled toes. One of the men is strumming a guitar with long dirty fingernails. A couple are chewing beetelnut; one is smoking a cigarette. All have plastic cups of sakau in front of them. The beauty of the notes, the soulfulness of a Baptist choir is still there . . . but quieter, subdued.

Most of the songs were about lusting after an unavailable girl, and possibly committing suicide: Ehu, riau, siluh, I pahn luhs. One, two, three, I will jump. I mehn iang market, ahp sohte nai money. I want to go to the sakaumarket, but I have no money. It was the Pohnpeian version of the sad old country song.  All they needed was a harmonica and a camp fire, and they could practically be cowboys in the Old West.

Now, as I approached the table, I remembered to be respectful. I whispered the greeting:  “Kaselehlie, maing ko,” and bowed slightly. Their smiles were welcoming and serene. “Kohdo nim sakau,” they whispered back.  Come drink sakau.  I laid a wrinkled dollar bill on the linoleum tabletop and sat on the wooden bench. One of the men proudly dipped me a plastic cup of sakau and set it in front of me — it was his sakau we were drinking tonight. I knew by now to have something to eat or chew that would cut the bitter flavor of the sakau, and, following local customs of polite behavior, I offered my salty sunflower seeds and beetelnut to everyone at the table.

I’d gotten used to the polite small talk, followed by long silences, in my presence. In spite of living with a host family for over a year now, my Pohnpeian was still that of a toddler, and their English, though better, was not great. The men were already sakaula-drunk, and after half a cup I was starting to feel a bit more relaxed myself. The music, the quiet, the sakau . . . it was so still.

The guitar player made eye contact with me, then looked skyward, indicating I should look, too. I’d known the moon was a little more than half full (it made it easier to see in the dark), but I had no idea it was ringed. A whole circle, whitish-silver and mysterious, surrounded the moon.  Knowing that there were ice crystals way out there, refracting the light and creating that ring, gave me a chill. It was still about 80 degrees, even at 8 pm. I hadn’t shivered in months. Ice crystals over the tropics. But here, in this place — the dark, the quiet, the sakau, the whispered voices and muted guitar strumming — it seemed like more than just ice crystals — it seemed like an omen.

Pohnpeians have a long history of magic, black magic, ghosts, healing, etc. — things we’ve forgotten or laugh about in our brightly lit, virtually connected homes in America. Here, the ring around the moon meant something as harmless as kateu lakap rain tomorrow . . . or as intense as “someone will be killed soon.”

It wasn’t as easy to just shrug off everything on that island as superstition. All around were the sounds of taro and banana leaves shifting over each other in the jungle, like whispering voices. When it got dark, it was really dark.  And quiet. There was no hum of traffic, no orange glare of street lights. I could actually hear myself think. It was spooky. I felt so much closer to everything. And it became easier to believe that there was a magic happening, just by being alive and together, on this night, drinking sakau under a ringed moon.