Long circumscribed by ritual, kava is breaking out of traditional constraints and becoming an everyday escape-and problem

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By day, it's just another ramshackle shed, set in a square of grass on a Port Vila back street. But as night falls, Ronnie Watson switches on the dim red light hanging outside the tin and plasterboard shack and opens his bar. Inside, under a bare yellow globe, his wife Ruby slices apples and oranges into neat chunks, wraps strips of foil around the ends of scrawny chicken drumsticks, tidies packets of Minties and Juicy Fruit gum, and funnels a thick, gray-brown liquid from plastic pails into a row of empty drink bottles lining the counter. That sludge, kava, is the only drink on the menu at Ronnie's. The food is there only to mask the pungent, bitter flavor of Vanuatu's intoxicant of choice.

It may look unappetizing and taste terrible, but many ni-Vanuatu regard kava's warm, soporific embrace as a gift from the gods. Long a staple of South Pacific island rituals, the narcotic wrung from the roots of Piper methysticum, a pepper plant, is traditionally imbibed to cement alliances, repair rifts, reaffirm status, commune with the spirits and treat illnesses from colds to gonorrhea. Condemned as the "devil's drink" by 19th century missionaries and outlawed by Vanuatu's colonial masters, kava has been promoted officially, since independence in 1980, as a link to valued traditions, a lucrative export crop and an innocuous alternative to alcohol, today's demon brew.

While the village nakamals (open-air club houses) on outlying islands continue to observe complex preparation and drinking rites, there's no such ceremony at most of Port Vila's 100 kava bars. "Island beer" can still move adherents to raptures. "Kava is the best," says Ronnie's customer Charles Mark in the quiet, slow speech of a man who has downed three coconut shells of the drink. "I relax, I feel good, I forget everything." But, with use of kava on the rise, Vanuatu's health workers aren't so impressed with its effects.

Each afternoon, when kava roots are brought into nakamals on the outlying island of Tanna, young boys go to work, chewing the fibrous mass into a pulp that is diluted with water, stirred and left to ferment for a few hours before being poured through a coconut-fiber strainer into the communal kava bowl. In bars like Ronnie's, those young mouths have been replaced by meat grinders. That would please the European explorers and missionaries who were revolted by the sight of masticating, spitting virgins. But expatriates like New Zealander Ross Wilson, who has sampled the saliva-laced brew, say it's "cleaner-tasting and stronger" when prepared that way.

It's a taste most women can only imagine. Of the many legends surrounding the origins of kava, one of the most popular is that the shrub sprang from the loins of a woman, says Ronnie's customer McClory Kalsakau, "and only men can drink from a woman." Such was the taboo on the island of Tanna that females who saw kava being prepared or drunk risked being put to death. Today, says Malvatumauri (National Council of Chiefs) chairman Tom Numake, "We just hit her over the head with a kava branch until she cries." Western women are welcome at most of Vila's kava bars, but some ni-Vanuatu men prefer their wives to "buy some powder to drink at home," says father of three Yaxlee Nagos, "once they've finished with the kids."

At Tanna's nakamals, drinking kava is said to be "like shaking hands in farewell"; ritual dictates that drinkers down a shell, blow a spray of liquid into the night, mutter an incantation to the gods, then sit in silence, "listening" to the kava. That wouldn't appeal to Ronnie's customers, although heightened sensitivity to sound means drinkers tend to converse in whispers. "I've made plenty of friends here," says ni-Vanuatu chef Dennis Falau, who's at the bar every night. "In Australia," says refrigeration mechanic Geoff Clelland as his young daughter clambers over the bench beside him, "I'd get frowned on for taking her to the pub, but here no one seems to mind until she starts making a ruckus."

Drinking kava is a nightly tradition on Tanna, where popular varieties include "wok let" (likely to make you late for work) and "two-day" (which has a 48-hour recovery period). In most parts of Vanuatu, the brew was reserved for ceremonies and men of high rank; now many people imbibe daily. Falau, who can drink 10 shells in one session, says "kava is not like alcohol, which can make you want to fight." But some men, says Nagos, "still have to force their wives to heat up their dinner when they come home late." Health Department officer Asha Sine says people are abusing kava-and its effects aren't confined to hangover-like headaches and nausea; it also reduces people's desire to work and isolates them from their families. And though kava only costs $1.30 a shell, says Sine, "it is expensive if you drink every day and buy extra for your friends." With workplace absenteeism and family breakdowns on the rise, Vanuatu's health workers may be wishing that kava did talk-and that it would tell its devotees to exercise some self-control.