Worshipping an American Deity

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Oceania » Vanuatu » Tanna
September 16th 2012
Published: October 31st 2012
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Tales of unique religious practices have emanated from Tanna Island for decades, a place where seemingly mortal humans are accorded divine status. There is the Prince Philip movement, which worships the Duke of Edinburgh, but far more popular is the John Frum movement, where their figure of veneration is a US Marine. Since I am drawn to observing different religions, it was inevitable that my journey to Tanna would seek out one of these faiths.

The village where I stayed possessed an extraordinary sense of community, as evidenced by the story of a husband and wife unable to have children, so when the husband’s brother fathered twins, he gave one to the infertile couple to raise as a child of their own. Another expression of this communal spirit was the Sunday morning church service at the Apostle David Ministry, an emotional service graced with glorious singing and beautiful ambience that filled the area within its wooden walls with calm and love. Afterwards, I was invited to a communal feast where I was excitedly informed of my resemblance to a movie star; and when I questioned who, I was told amongst shrieks of laughter that it was Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean character – pity that the comparison was not of a more handsome actor.

One morning I sauntered to nearby Shark Bay, an area reached by walking beneath a trail so deeply covered by a canopy of trees that it only allowed patches of sunshine to pattern the path. I emerged from the wooded area and onto a cliff atop the rolling surf of Shark Bay. Whilst resting, a teenager named Clemens languidly appeared, with a large machete type knife hanging from his hand.

Clemens educated me about the Bay’s importance, and using his knife to carve through the undergrowth, revealed the sacred stones that foretell whether sharks will continue to visit the bay. We walked along a cliff where the bodies of deceased villagers were deposited over the edge and into the waiting jaws of two large bull sharks. However, these sharks died some time ago, so this ritual is not currently practiced. Clemens lamented the day when a nearby villager defiled the area by entering the sacred beach that caused many worshipped sharks to permanently leave.

We sat on the grass overlooking the Bay and the Pacific Ocean stretching to the horizon. Clemens explained his life, “I moved to Port Vila”, the capital of approximately 50,000 inhabitants, “but it was too busy, too hectic. I came back here, it is more peaceful” as he looked out to the ocean, “Here I am close to the spirit of my ancestors – and the sharks”. He smiled, “The sharks whisper to our villagers; they whisper to me too.” He looked down at the Bay, “This place makes me calm, I can spend hours here. But some people come to receive strength from the sharks if they need to fix a dispute.”

We were interrupted by a bunch of boisterous young children, one carrying a long knife. I observed, “It seems that everyone on this island carries a knife.” Clemens quietly laughed, “A person without a knife is not a person.” I watched a boy of about five attempting to split a coconut with the knife, whereas children of the same age in Australia would still be using safety scissors in order to “protect’ them. We concluded our conversation after an hour, “What job do you want to do when you get older?” “I want to be a tour guide so I can educate people about my village and the sharks,” he quickly replied. My impression of Clemens was of a young man whose connection with nature was absolute, similar to the absolute respect and adoration for his ancestors and the sharks.

Of all the villages on the island, the one I was keenest to visit was Lamakala, where many of the adherents of the John Frum movement reside. I was accompanied by my local village chief, Yata, and we proceeded along dirt roads dark with volcanic soil and underneath towering trees with lush foliage. As is usual for anywhere on Tanna, our walk was punctuated by a series of conversations with people along the way – it does not matter whether you are a Ni-Vanuatu or a foreigner – the residents of this island are amongst the world’s greatest conversationalists. We hitched a lift for a small part of the way with a passing vehicle, and met a guitar carrying musician named Morris who was also travelling to Lamakala to participate in the regular Friday night singing session.

Three hours after our departure, we walked into Lamakala, literally within the shadow of Mount Yasur, and I could espy plumes of smoke rising from behind the palm trees. The dark volcanic soil was scattered with clusters of low wooden huts surrounding a spacious public area. A large group of foreign visitors and a German film crew were already in attendance, and they were hosted by the village chief, Isaac the Last One, a name bestowed by John Frum when visited the village more than 70 years ago.

An hour later, and with only the German television crew remaining, Isaac the Last One spread a palm mat beneath a tree and I squatted next to a man whose wiry black and grey hair and beard surrounded a face brimming with character. He must have told the following tale hundreds of times of times in his long life, yet Issac the Last One recounted the story of John Frum with eagerness and intensity. John Frum (who he affectionately called “Johnny”) appeared to his father in a dream in the early 1930s, and visited in person both in 1937 and 1940.

With a thick accent issuing from behind widely spaced yellowing teeth, Isaac the Last One proudly conveyed the movement’s most important principle, “Johnny said we keep kastom life,” and he paused to breathe deeply, “The Government did not like that. My father and grandfather were put in jail in Vila.” It transpired that for opposing the government, both family members were incarcerated from 1941 until 1956, but the father was too ill to return to Tanna Island and he died shortly after his release.

“Johnny is called ‘Frum’”, Isaac continued, “It is the word of ‘broom’ in our language.” “Why broom?” I queried, “Johnny will clean the world so there is one church. Then Jesus will return” was the response. This uniting of world religions differed from the generally accepted impression of the John Frum movement being a cargo cult, so I asked. “Is there anything else you want Johnny to bring you?” to which Isaac responded, “Johnny will come before Jesus. This is all we want.”

Isaac the Last One explained how devotees worship Johnny, “We follow kastom life. We have flags. We sing songs.” Flags were initially introduced to Isaac’s scions during their interment in 1945 when US personnel presented two red flags, one retained by the father (it was first raised in Lamakala by the grandfather in 1957) and the other given to the US Navy. Coincidentally, the daily afternoon flag ceremony commenced, with flags from the US, their Marines, France and Australia (the yellow, red and black Australian Aboriginal Flag) being lowered in unison and respectfully folded before being marched away for safekeeping for the evening, and the documentary crew provided a ripple of applause in response.

Our conversation continued and Isaac the Last One proudly produced photographs of him dressed in military uniform for John Frum Day on February 15. He recounted his visit to the Solomon Islands and the United States in order to honour the Americans. In response, I showed him and others my photos of the US memorial, military sites and remnants from the Battle for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. This fascinated many, as it was the first time they had sighted a place where the US Marines had fought. It was obvious that the people of Lamakala love the Americans more than any other people on earth, perhaps even the Americans themselves.

With our meeting ended, I wandered the village to be accosted by raucous children and friendly adults. One woman wished me to pose for a photograph, and I expected her to produce an old camera, but to my surprise she presented a shiny, new red Sony Cybershot. After capturing the moment, she looked at the image and exclaimed “You are Mr Bean!” I am unsure why the fascination with Rowan Atkinson’s character on this island, but he is an immensely popular figure.

With the onset of darkness came the gospel singing that attracts Ni-Vanuatu from around the island. Each visiting village brought a dozen male and female singers accompanied by several guitars, and whilst they were playing, observers engaged in minimalist dance moves, with the women (as usual) being the most expressive. Not being inclined of listening and dancing until dawn, after two hours, I boarded a vehicle that bumped our way to my accommodation.

I have not met a gentler people than those on Tanna Island, a place where varied and deeply ingrained faiths are not only tolerated but accepted. This relaxed acceptance by the Ni-Vanuatu of religions different from their own shames the intolerance and ridicule practiced by a number of religious adherents in other parts of the world.

Additional photos below
Photos: 24, Displayed: 24


Church building for the Apostle David Ministry - Tanna Island, VanuatuChurch building for the Apostle David Ministry - Tanna Island, Vanuatu
Church building for the Apostle David Ministry - Tanna Island, Vanuatu

During the communal eating session after the service.
Hitching a ride to Lamakala - Tanna Island, VanuatuHitching a ride to Lamakala - Tanna Island, Vanuatu
Hitching a ride to Lamakala - Tanna Island, Vanuatu

Mt Yasur is in the background, with Maurice (left) and Yata (right).

31st October 2012

Pidgin of Vanuatu
I first heard of the John Frum movement about 20 years ago from an article in The Wall Street Journal. One thing that struck me was the melding of language between the local people and American GIs. One phrase that I think conjures up a wonderful image is "the mixmaster bilong Jesus" to describe a helicopter.
31st October 2012

Thanks for the comment! The beauty of the melding of language is that Pidgin strongly retains the observations and attitudes of the Ni-Vanuatu.
31st October 2012

What a facinating place!
Interesting that being "cargo cult" is not the whole story, I've read and heard about it many times - usually illustrating how unexplained events can lead to religious belief. What is your take on this now you've seen it first hand?
31st October 2012

Unexplained events and religious belief
That is a very good question, I believe that the Ni-Vanuatu are a deeply spiritual people who can find divinity in anything. It reminds me of Shinto from Japan where "Kami" is found in many natural objects and animals, and even within certain people who are deemed as exceptional.
31st October 2012

Lush landscapes and fine encounters!
How rewarding to have such sweet encounters with these relaxed, friendly people! Regarding Mr. Bean, I occasionally used clips of his films in my lower-level ESL classes. Mr. Bean\'s humor is broad, and he uses little dialogue, so he appeals to those whose first language isn\'t English. And I imagine these islanders would enjoy a good, gentle laugh.
31st October 2012

Yet one more beautifully written entry; love your encounter with Clemens & his approach to life and the one with the Last One, these discussions seem to be so natural and open...thanks for sharing!
1st November 2012

Blackadder lives on!
He has to be my all time favourite character! Not so fond of Mr Bean but of course you have had to change as time goes on! Seriously though, what a great experience with some very interesting people with gentle beliefs.
2nd December 2012

Good one, Shane! This was really interesting, well-written, and informative!

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