Behind the dance: the Yaqona Vakaturaga

A circle of men sitting in the centre of the room. They are not moving and their faces look serious. They are wearing knee-long, straw-made skirts, flower necklaces and bracelets. Behind them, another group of men wearing colorful shirts and trousers begin to sing. In front of them, on the main stage, George Konrote (President of Fiji) and Barbara Hendricks (German Minister of Environment) are watching them. As Mr. Konrote claps his hands three times, the ritual dance begins. All the men start singing, clapping their hands and moving, while one of them in the centre starts soaking what seem to be a sheaf of straw in a bowl, which was previously dunked with water.

Suddenly, the choir and the dance stop. One man, dressed with a typical Fijian suit, fills half of a coconut shell with the straw-treated water and offers it to Mrs. Hendricks. She drinks it and right after that the same beverage is offered to Mr. Konrote. The audience seems surprised while the men finish their ritual sit-dancing and singing. “What have we just seen?”, they all seem to silently ask.
When the ritual ends, and the speech begins again, we move to solve this mystery. In the hall, we find two of the dancers standing in front of a crowd. We speak to one of them. He looks happy when we approach him and, as we ask him: “What’s the ceremony you just took part to?”, he simply answers: “Oh! That was the Yaqona Vakaturaga!”.

He explains us that, in Fiji the ritual is made to show respect and honour a guest or a person who is considered a “chief”. This ritual has its roots in ancient Fijian history and, in this case, it was practiced to show the respect and gratitude that Fijians feel for Germans as they made possible the realisation of COP 23 by hosting it in their country. A thing that was impossible for Fijian both from financial and logistic reasons. He also explains us that, what seemed to be straw, is actually a special plant: the Yaqona or Kava. “We grow it in Fiji and when it is fully grown we leave it to dry in the sun.”

This plant has a central role in Fijian traditions and it is normally pounded into a powder to easily mix it with water. As we leave him, he adds that he was honoured to show the world his traditions, and we assure him that we also were to have found them out. There could have not been a better beginning for an event which purpose is to find a touch point between many different countries and points of view.

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