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FEATURE: In wake of cyclone, Vanuatuans pray to Prince Philip

AP, YAKEL, Vanuatu

Albi Nagia poses with photographs of Britain’s Prince Philip in Yakel Village on Tanna Island in Vanuatu on May 31. Nagia is part of a movement which worships the prince as the son of their ancestral god.

Photo: AP

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

In England, the former naval officer is known as a sports enthusiast who is 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 is 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,” said Nako Nikien, who prefers to go by the name Jimmy Joseph.

Joseph said it has become a tradition to talk or pray to Philip each evening, when villagers from Yaohnanen and Yakel gather 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 said. “And it happens.”

CYCLONE

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.

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 thatch huts, wearing nothing except grass skirts or a penis shield called a nambas.

Known as kastom, it is a way of life threatened by the spread of Western lifestyles.

At the end of a winding, isolated dirt track, people feel free to live this way, but when they trek to the island’s main town to sell the coffee beans they grow or to buy rice, they usually wear clothes.

Joseph said he believes that the spirit of Philip comes from Tanna and that one day he will return.

ETERNAL LIFE

On that day, the fish will leap from the sea and life will become eternal, Joseph said, adding that he is not worried that Philip is aging.

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

It is 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 received a boost when US service members 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 such symbols as the US flag.

Once a year they march, drill-style, while carrying imitation rifles fashioned from bamboo.

1974 VISIT

The Prince Philip movement received 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. 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.

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