Testing Times, Helen Carter

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Breathing rapidly. Heart throbbing. Sweat forming under my armpits but I held my ground, as I stared down the ferocious, club-wielding giant. I wanted to run. Tears were welling up but I held them back. I wasn’t going to be intimidated. I might only be slightly built, but I could do this. I didn’t want to but I had to. What would happen if I budged? I didn’t know and I didn’t find out because I stood my ground and passed the test. He got as close as the length of his wooden club and stopped. I breathed a sigh of relief.

So why, ten years later, was I being tested again? The first time had been in New Zealand. It wasn’t easy for the Maori group to accept a woman was head of the tribe, but there it was. And ten years later I had to pass another test but as head of a different tribe, and this time in Fiji. There was the added frisson of a history of cannibalism in the village but that was in the past, wasn’t it?

A bright yellow school bus drives us to the small village of Kuku Tailevu, an hour north-west of Suva, past the old Wesleyan mission where my father-in-law’s family are from. In the tribal-war days the village was called Molituva and a fortified ring-ditch provided protection from neighbouring, hostile tribes. That part of the village is abandoned now, along with its terrible association with cannibalism.

A wooden-painted church hall and a mixture of concrete and wooden houses welcomes us. Around the village is lush with palms, hibiscus, climbing vines with trumpet flowers and thick, green undergrowth. Free-range chickens cluck at our feet. Young children shyly smile, as we walk up the muddied, grass track to the amphitheatre, serenaded by toothless village elders.

I sit down with the village headman, on a grassy hillock overlooking the amphitheatre, while the rest of my tribe sit some distance away, ringing the edges. For modesty, I’m given a long grass skirt to wear. The atmosphere is tense, as the singing stops and drums begin their sombre beat. The air is charged, expectant. There is nothing to be afraid of, and yet?

Five strapping, young male warriors, wearing grass skirts and woven anklets, wielding spears appear. They usher in another warrior bearing a large wooden bowl.  They walk solemnly to the middle of the amphitheatre and sit. The chanting begins as they prepare their mixture in the ceremonial bowl.

The first cup of kava goes to the person of highest rank as a mark of honour. And apparently it is me. It is meant to be a ceremonial sip but they’ve decided to test me. The presented cup is full and despite wondering about the hygiene of the hands mixing the concoction, at least he hadn’t chewed the roots, as was the original tradition. It looks like dirty dishwater and has a taste to match. But I don’t gag. I drink it all. Once again, I pass the test.

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