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Who is Jon Frum? Ask Vanuatu



By Mitchell Smyth

Meridian Writers’ Group

TANNA, Vanuatu–Where is Jon Frum? Some tribes on Tanna, the most unspoiled of Vanuatu’s 74 inhabited islands, believe he lives in their active volcano. Others say he’s in America and will soon be coming back to them. Chief Jack Naiva and his tribe know better. Jon Frum is in London, he says. Living with the queen.

A bit of background is needed. Jon Frum is the legendary figure worshipped by the so-called "cargo cults" in this South Pacific archipelago. Cargo cults have existed here since the Second World War when United States military personnel arrived by the thousands, bringing machines and possessions that seemed miraculous to the natives.

Some natives, amazed that a person could, for instance, press a button and get a bottle of pop, still worship the now-empty Coke machines. They believe Jon Frum will come to restock the machines.

But who is Jon Frum? In a legend with Christian overtones, he’s the god who will bring unlimited goodies to the islanders, just as the G.I.s did.

Around Mount Yasur, an active volcano on the south of the island, the tribespeople say the rumbling from deep in the mountain is Jon Frum speaking.

Others say he’s an American. To honour him they’ve built a temple with an American flag as the centerpiece and they hold festivals where they dress in old U.S. combat fatigues and carry bamboo "rifles."

In the hill village of Yaohnanen there’s a thatched hut containing just one artifact: a picture of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. But he’s really Jon Frum, Chief Jack and his tribe believe. And every Friday they gather in front of the hut to worship him.

The photo arrived via the British High Commission in Vila, the capital. In reply, Chief Jack asked Prince Philip to come and live here. "We will be happy to receive him," he says, through an interpreter. "He will bring us goods: spades to dig yams, rice, bush knives... We’ll go hunting for wild boar."

The prince, he says, wouldn’t necessarily have to adopt native dress. (The men wear just a namba or penis sheath, while the grass-skirted women go topless.)

The 300-member tribe began to worship Prince Philip in the 1970s when he and Queen Elizabeth visited the islands, then a British possession called the New Hebrides. It was explained that the queen was an all-powerful ruler. This being a macho society, the people decided Philip was even more powerful. He must be Jon Frum.

The chief says Jon Frum appears in the night as Prince Philip to the tribe’s mystic man. "He tells us to wait, that some time he will be back."

They and the other cargo cultists believe Jon Frum will come on Feb. 15, but they don’t know which year. That’s the date when, in 1957, Chief Tommy Nampas, an early cargo cult prophet, hoisted the American flag in the shadow of Mount Yasur and announced that Jon Frum would be coming, carrying loads of food, pop and medical supplies. That flag, now tattered, still flies every February.


For information on travel in Vanuatu visit the Vanuatu Tourism Office website at www.vanuatutourism.com .

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