Tanna: The Isle of Curious Cults
Story and photos by Stephen M. Bland

On a once-isolated volcanic island in the South Pacific, the followers of a legendary visitor from the 1930s still wait for his return... and their promised riches.

Vanuatu Dancers

For the people of Vanuatu, magic is still very much a part of everyday life. Curses are the source of illness, love secured through a potion known as “sweet-mouth.” In the world's most at-risk country for natural disasters, where special types of stones are thought to cause earthquakes, men gather nightly under banyan trees the size of football pitches to drink kava—the liquid of a psychotropic root—and converse with their ancestors.

Giant Banyan Tree

On this remote archipelago in the South Pacific, the island of Tanna is home to Mt. Yasur. One of the most active volcanoes on Earth, as a place where gods are said to reside, it was off-limits until recently. Due to an increase in tourist numbers, however, it’s now the subject of a lawsuit after one tribe bought it from another for “a few breakfast crackers and cigarettes.”

It’s on this tiny island that a plethora of fantastical cargo cults vie for followers. Built around a shadowy figure that first appeared in the 1930s to a group of men drinking kava, the John Frum millennial sect flourished during WWII, when American GI’s became the living embodiment of a promised future bounty. Marching past red crosses—an emblem borrowed from the NGO—followers of John (Frum America) still parade under the banner of the stars and stripes. Carrying rifles carved from wood, they pray for the return of their demi-god, whose Marines are said to inhabit the volcano.

Tanna Mountain ash plain

Exploring an Island of Royal Visitors

The capital of Tanna, Lenakel is a dusty town which sits beneath a seemingly permanent rainbow. Being good Christians, the Ni-Van are obsessed with Chrismast, images of Santa Claus daubed on the breezeblock buildings. Arriving at our accommodation, we were greeted by Antoinette, a big old lady in a flowery muumuu with a wiry ball of silver hair. Seeing our attention drawn to a collapsed structure in the garden, she emitted a hearty laugh which petered out in the typical Ni-Van style with a sound like “Ooo weh!”

Tropical Santa Claus in Vanuatu

“Pam,” she said, referencing the cyclone which had devastated the country in March 2015, impacting an estimated 90 percent of the nation's buildings and paralyzing telecommunications and water supplies. “Roof blew off tumas quickly. There was people floating in the bay. We could see them from hia,” she added in sing-song Bislama, pointing out across the palm-fringed yard. “Them get scooped out in the end, though.”

The fact that only an estimated 24 people died during the cyclone is a testament to the preparedness of the Islanders in this disaster-prone land.

We trekked through the jungle to Yaohnanen, home to the Prince Philip cult made famous by the TV series, Meet the Natives. In town, we’d met Jay-Jay, translator and narrator for the series, a scrawny, unassuming fellow in a moth-eaten top which came past to his knees. Our visit to Yaohnanen proved to be a strange experience, men gathering around us upon our arrival and demanding to know what we were doing there.

 “We are British, Prince Philip is from Britain,” I explained.

“Are you sure he’s from Britain?” one man enquired disbelievingly.

Extant since 1974, when the pale British Duke of Edinburgh visited Vanuatu decked in a white suit, followers of the movement believe he is the son of a nambawan (number one) spirit ancestor. Worshiping at shrines where portraits of him are draped in Union Jacks, they attest that Britain and Vanuatu were once a single landmass, before being blown to opposite sides of the globe by the volcano. With Cyclone Pam having served as a harbinger, excitement is high that Prince Philip’s retirement from public life is a sign that he will soon return home to live among them.

The Tanna Kava Crew

Trailed after by an entourage of twenty men wielding rusted machetes, we continued deep into the wilderness. Delivered to a circumcision hut, we waited, but the true believers had gone on a “walkabout” in the bush. Enveloped in flies, all eyes in the hut were trained unflinching upon us. Aside from the men who’d trailed after us, there were fifteen naked toddlers wielding knives longer than their bodies. Sat on the dirt floor in the middle of nowhere, a semi-clad woman was busy typing at a brand new laptop, three hours from the nearest plug socket.

Yaohnanen Hut

At a nakamal—a ceremonial space-come-kava bar—in Lenakel that evening, we met Timothy, a young man with single ratted dreadlock hanging down past his waist. Though he worked in the logging industry, contributing to the ecological disasters which plague his country, he had no sense of doing anything untoward.

 “You try kava?” he asked, one of the first questions any Ni-Van posits having engaged you in conversation. “You likem kava?” he smiled.

With a texture and flavor one might imagine belonging to mulched cardboard or wallpaper paste, it was an acquired taste.

Sleepy Lenakel only really got going when it was time to visit the nakamal, men staggering about in the pitch dark hacking up phlegm balls. In front of the bar sat the bulldozers of a Chinese crew who were engaged in building a road around the island, which would take either three months or fifteen years to complete, depending on who you believed. Not all of the locals were ready to embrace the change the road promised to deliver, however.

“Road no gud,” Timothy lamented; “Chinese, hemi bugger-up everything.”

Our conversation was waylaid by an ambulance pulling up by the entrance.

“Away! Away!” those in the funeral procession of a child who had died of malaria cried, but most of the drowsy kava drinkers barely raised their heads to offer a thousand-yard stare.

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Read this article online at: Tanna: The Isle of Curious Cults

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