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.”
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.
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.
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.
“The people believe in everything and nothing,” he said.
Lindstrom said that while the Prince Philip movement might have begun organically enough, it might 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 US.
In recent years, the Prince Philip movement may again have been bolstered by the West.
Nagia 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,” Joseph said. “It is 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 said Philip responded: “It is too cold in England.”
Only the chiefs can decipher what the allegory about the tropical fruit, also called a papaya, really means, Joseph said, but if he were to guess, it is not yet time for Philip to visit Tanna.
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