Van­u­at­u­ans pray — to Prince Philip

The China Post - - LIFE - BY NICK PERRY

Stand­ing un­der his sa­cred banyan tree, Albi Na­gia sings as he cracks open a co­conut with a few deft strikes from his bush ma­chete. He chews the meat in­side and spits it out in a shower, to the de­light of the gath­er­ing chick­ens.

He is pray­ing to Prince Philip. Yes, that Prince Philip: the Duke of Ed­in­burgh, Queen El­iz­a­beth II’s hus­band, who cel­e­brates his 94th birth­day on Wed­nes­day.

In Eng­land, the for­mer naval of­fi­cer is known as a sports en­thu­si­ast who’s a bit can­tan­ker­ous at times and prone to say­ing the wrong thing. To sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple living in a hand­ful of re­mote vil­lages on Tanna is­land in the trop­i­cal Pa­cific ar­chi­pel­ago of Van­u­atu, he’s much more.

“Here in Tanna, we be­lieve that Prince Philip is the son of our God, our an­ces­tral God who lives up in the moun­tain,” says Nako Nikien, who prefers to go by the name Jimmy Joseph.

Joseph said it’s be­come a tra­di­tion to talk, or pray, to Philip each evening, when vil­lagers from Yaohna­nen and Yakel gather in their meet­ing places and share an in­tox­i­cat­ing brew made from kava plants.

“We ask him to in­crease the pro­duc­tion of our crops in the gar­den, or to give us the sun, or rain,” Joseph says, paus­ing. “And it hap­pens.”

Those prayers be­came more press­ing af­ter Cy­clone Pam ripped through Tanna in March, killing at least five on the is­land of 30,000 and destroying homes and crops.

Both Na­gia and Joseph are mem­bers of the Prince Philip move­ment, an un­usual cult that de­vel­oped in a place where peo­ple still choose to live as they have for cen­turies, in sim­ple thatch huts and wear­ing noth­ing but grass skirts or a pe­nis shield called a nam­bas.

Known as kas­tom, it’s a tra­di­tional way of life that’s un­der threat from the spread of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion. Down a wind­ing, rut­ted dirt track far from any­where, peo­ple feel free to live this way, but when they make the trek to the is­land’s main town to sell the cof­fee beans they grow or buy rice, they usu­ally put on clothes.

Joseph says he be­lieves that the spirit of Philip, who was born in Greece, comes from Tanna and that one day he will re­turn. On that day, he says, the fish will leap from the sea and life will be­come eter­nal. He says he’s not wor­ried that Philip is aging and may soon die.

“The spirit in Prince Philip

won’t die.”

“The move­ment will al­ways con­tinue,” he says. “And, from my opin­ion, or from what we be­lieve, the spirit in Prince Philip won’t die.”

It’s un­clear how the move­ment be­gan. It ap­pears to have grown in the 1960s as an off­shoot or ri­val to an­other un­usual is­land move­ment, the John Frum cargo cult. That cult be­gan around the 1930s and got a boost when U.S. servicemen were posted to Van­u­atu dur­ing World War II.

Fol­low­ers be­lieve the mys­te­ri­ous John Frum will one day re­turn from afar and bring spir­i­tual and ma­te­rial wealth. They have adopted sym­bols like the Amer­i­can flag and once a year they march, drill- style, while car­ry­ing imi­ta­tion ri­fles fash­ioned from bamboo sticks.

Joseph said the John Frum move­ment grew at a dif­fi­cult time, as el­ders tried to cling to tra­di­tional be­liefs and prophe­cies but were mocked and im­pris­oned for them as Chris­tian­ity took hold.

The Prince Philip move­ment got a boost when Philip and the Queen vis­ited Van­u­atu in 1974 on the royal yacht Bri­tan­nia, although the prince never set foot on Tanna is­land. El­ders later sent Philip a club from Tanna, and he sent them back a pho­to­graph show­ing him hold­ing it, which the el­ders took as a fur­ther sign that he was The One.

La­mont Lind­strom, an an­thro­pol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Tulsa in Ok­la­homa, said peo­ple on Tanna tra­di­tion­ally talk to a va­ri­ety of spir­its and can in­crease their stature in so­ci­ety through sto­ry­telling and prophecy.

“The peo­ple be­lieve in thing and noth­ing,” he says.

Lind­strom said that while the Prince Philip move­ment might have be­gun or­gan­i­cally enough, it may have been en­cour­aged by Bri­tish of­fi­cials sta­tioned in Van­u­atu who saw it as a coun­ter­point to the John Frum move­ment, which drew in­spi­ra­tion from France and the United States.

In re­cent years, the Prince Philip move­ment may again have been bol­stered by the west. Na­gia

ev­ery- and Joseph were among five lo­cals who in 2007 were flown to Eng­land by the Bri­tish re­al­ity show “Meet the Na­tives.” The five met Philip pri­vately at Wind­sor Cas­tle.

“Meet­ing him was just won­der­ful,” says Joseph. “It’s just like be­ing in a spir­i­tual world.”

He said the vil­lage chiefs wanted the five to ask Philip a spe­cific ques­tion in the form of an al­le­gory, but they ended up ask­ing the wrong one. They asked: Was the paw­paw ripe? Joseph says Philip re­sponded: It’s too cold in Eng­land.

Joseph says only the chiefs can de­ci­pher what the al­le­gory about the trop­i­cal fruit, also called a pa­paya, re­ally means. But if he was to guess, he says, it’s that it was not yet time for Philip to visit Tanna.

A trickle of cu­ri­ous out­siders con­tin­ues to visit th­ese re­mote vil­lages, which may be help­ing to sus­tain the move­ment and to en­cour­age the an­cient way of living. One such out­sider is Jerzy Gre­bosz, a Pol­ish com­puter sci­en­tist and nu­clear physi­cist who of­ten spends his va­ca­tion time living in Yakel, wear­ing noth­ing but slip-on shoes and a nam­bas.

“For me, travel in space is ob­vi­ous, I’m from Europe. But travel in time — I’m just like go­ing back 2,000 years with this ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says. “Meet­ing th­ese peo­ple, talk­ing to them, shar­ing their prob­lems, help­ing them some­times. You re­ally touch the cul­ture, in­side. So I’m very happy that they con­sid­ered me as a friend.”

How­ever, the one Westerner many here re­ally want to see has never come.

“Philip, your fa­ther lived there,” says Na­gia, point­ing to the moun­tain. “We came to Eng­land to visit you. You must come. We love you.”


(Above) In this May 31 photo, Albi Na­gia points to­ward the moun­tain that he says he be­lieves is the home to his an­ces­tral god and the spirit of Prince Philip in Yakel, Tanna is­land, Van­u­atu.

(Right) In this May 31 photo, Albi Na­gia and chil­dren look at a framed pho­to­graph of Prince Philip in Yakel, Tanna is­land, Van­u­atu.

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