Pacific villagers await their god: Britain's Prince  Philip

Pacific villagers await their god: Britain's Prince Philip

20th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Even though the Prince has never visited Vanuatu, villagers believe he will return one day bringing wild celebrations and the end of illness and death

Yaohnanen – Sitting in an ancient banyan tree in his remote village in Vanuatu, tribesman Sikor Natuan cradles a faded portrait of Britain's Prince Philip against his naked and tattooed chest.

Natuan, who just weeks before danced and feasted to mark the royal's 89th birthday, is already preparing for next year's celebrations –  and he is expecting the guest of honour to attend, despite his advanced age.

For in the South Pacific village of Yaohnanen on Vanuatu's Tanna Island, where men wear nothing but grass penis sheaths, and marijuana and tobacco grow wild, Prince Philip is worshipped as a god.

"Philip is one of the strongest beliefs" for the village, Natuan tells AFP through a local interpreter. "Since Philip left this place to go to England he is still young. His voice is still young but the body is old."

Don't try telling Natuan that Prince Philip has never set foot in Yaohnanen, a grouping of grass huts deep in Tanna's interior and reached by a bone-jarring car ride down a track lined with banyan trees as wide as houses.

To them, Prince Philip is from Tanna. They believe that the Greek-born husband of Queen Elizabeth II is a descendant of a male being who emerged from the sacred mountain of Tukosmera, which overlooks the village.

"When Philip was a little child, all our grandfathers on the island of Tanna told him he would be the ruler for the whole world," Natuan explains.

"We believe this, that Philip heard that there was a queen in England. She was ready to make him king and so he decided to go and see the queen."

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, walks near the partially built monument to Britain's Prince Philip in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu on 6 August 2010

The villagers, who come from a nation where magic and witchcraft are still accepted, are firm in their belief that Philip will one day return to the lush volcanic islands, bringing with him wild sexual celebrations and an end to death and illness.

Some legends tie him to the island's erupting volcano on Mount Yasur.

The locals believe "Philip will come when the paw paw is ready", meaning around his birthday in June, when the fruit ripens.

British officials investigating the movement in the late 1970s found that villagers could have focused on the Duke of Edinburgh because he visited the country in 1971, when it was known as the New Hebrides, and matched an age-old legend of a returning son who had pale skin.

Upon learning that he was not born in England, France or the United States, they may have decided that Philip must, therefore, be from Tanna.

Sikor Natuan, who is about 38, learned what he knows about the prince because he "always laid on the shoulder of my grandfather", the late chief Jack Naiva, and listened to his stories.

The children of Yaohnanen, where there is no running water or electricity and illiterate adults live among pigs, emaciated dogs and roosters scrambling for food, know the legend too.

"We've taught them to know Philip," Natuan, who has four children of his own, said. "They know Philip in the picture. And they hope that someday they are going to see Philip."

Survival in Yaohnanen is based on water from a nearby stream; cultivating sweet potatoes, watermelons, spring onions; and plucking wild mandarins, paw paws, bananas and coconuts from the trees. Protein comes from fish, chicken and pigs.

At the centre of the village, the meeting place for the area's estimated 500 residents, are two enormous banyan trees where locals gather in the evening to drink the numbing and intoxicating local brew, kava, made from pepper tree roots.

Sikor Natuan (R) and members of his tribe sit under the banyan tree used for kava ceremonies in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu

Sydney-based anthropologist Kirk Huffman, who has lived in and studied Vanuatu for almost two decades and investigated the Prince Philip movement for the British government, told AFP the belief stems for an ancient tradition of truth-seeking.

"It's got to be seen in a historical context, it's got to be taken seriously," Huffman told AFP. "What they are looking for is a lost spiritual connection" with the outside world, he said.

In other villages on Tanna Island, locals are part of the so-called John Frum Movement, a similar cult which stems from the appearance of a pale-skinned stranger in the 1930s.

Adherents to the movement, which encourages the return to traditional customs of dancing and kava-drinking, also believe that a hero, ‘John Frum’ will one day return, bringing with him the riches seen in the hands of American GIs during World War II -- including radios and cars.

Amid the palms, frangipani and butterflies of Yaohnanen, Natuan is hoping to erect a monument to Philip -- one which showcases the now water-damaged and faded portraits of the prince which were sent from England.

For Buckingham Palace is aware of the movement and has obliged with portraits and the acceptance of gifts over the years, though no visit.

But more importantly, Natuan wants to see the prince, who is known in the West less as a deity and more for his off-colour remarks, including asking an Australian Aborigine if his people were "still throwing spears" in 2002.

"You managed not to get eaten, then?" he once inquired of a student who had trekked in Papua New Guinea.

None of this matters to Sikor Natuan.

"I really want to see Philip, that's the main dream," Natuan tells AFP.

"My grandfathers wanted to see his face but they didn't make it, or they died," he explains. "I really need to see him. I don't want to see him, I need to see him."

Madeleine Coorey / AFP / Expatica

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