Regular attendance at kava clubs can help keep young Tongan men away from drugs, alcohol and gangs, a study has found.
The AUT study analysed the kava club attendance of New Zealand-born Tongans aged between 16 and 30. It revealed that participation in these clubs helped foster a strong sense of cultural identity and diverted young Tongan males from drug and alcohol abuse, and youth gang participation.
Auckland University of Technology Master's Degree student Edmond Fehoko undertook the research and says kava clubs have existed in New Zealand since early days of Tongan immigration; his research focused particularly on the role the clubs play in the lives of New Zealand-born Tongan males.
"There has been research conducted on the practice of faikava [kava club attendance] with older, Tongan-born males in New Zealand, but there has been no research undertaken on younger generations born here," he says.
Kava clubs in Auckland are affiliated with the participant's Tongan village of origin. They often take place on a Friday night and can include up to 30 men of all ages.
Fehoko says the faikava ritual can be seen as a "cultural classroom" where the Tongan language is celebrated and nourished through singing, proverbs and metaphors and casual discussions on a range of subjects.
"It is a place to establish and reinforce identity," he says. "Kava clubs create inter-generational harmony as the elders pass on their customary knowledge and in turn listen to the views of the younger participants."
The clubs are also a place where fathers can pass on knowledge to their sons, helping to strengthen filial relationships and further forge cultural identity.
Fehoko says that he was introduced to faikava by his father at an early age: "I began to attend kava club when I was 14. At first I didn't want to go and sit around listening to other people talk but I soon started learning new words and began to realise how important my language and culture were."
The kava club is a male-only domain with women acting as servers of the kava; a role that has been traditionally considered a great honour. While Fehoko's study did not look at the female perspective on kava clubs, he feels that is worthy of further study.
Kava has had a troubled existence in Northern Territories in Australia due to misuse by Aboriginal communities there. Police have had to crack down on criminal activity supporting the distribution, sale and misuse of kava; in 2012 they seized over 2000 kilograms of the cheaply-purchased plant for re-sale in Australia.
There are no signs of such misuse here (or in other parts of Australia) and Fehoko believes that kava clubs are an important cultural marker and of huge value to the Tongan experience of life in New Zealand.
"Kava drinking is part of our identity. If we lose this, we lose everything," he says.
Fehoko recently presented his findings at the inaugural Pacific Leo Symposium last month on AUT's South Campus. This symposium is the first in what is expected to be an annual event and featured lectures by Pacific Island postgraduate students on a range of subjects.
Orchestrated by AUT professor of Pacific Studies Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop (who supervised Fehoko's thesis), the symposium allowed those post-graduate students to share their work with the public.
"Such events allow the research to get out in the public arena," says Fairbairn-Dunlop. "This research tells us how we are living our lives and celebrates our language, identity and community."
Fairbairn-Dunlop believes such research is essential for a robust analysis of the Pacific communities in New Zealand and can help inform policy at government and community/family levels.
Her main research interest is the safety and vulnerability of Pacific families in contemporary New Zealand.
"Families are a source of love and belonging. They are the source of language and the sharing of Pacific knowledge."
But 21st-century New Zealand life can be a challenge for the traditional Pacific family.
"Contemporary society has a huge impact on the way in which the Pacific family functions," she says. "Information technology, mobile phones, being in a new culture and having new friends - these are things that young people have to adapt to in a new society; the challenges can be huge."
* This story is part of a content partnership with AUT