YAKEL, Vanuatu (AP) — Standing under his sacred banyan tree, Albi Nagia sings as he cracks open a coconut with a few deft strikes from his bush machete. He chews the meat inside and spits it out in a shower, to the delight of the 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 on Wednesday.
In England, the former naval officer is known as a sports enthusiast who’s 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’s 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,” says Nako Nikien, who prefers to go by the name Jimmy Joseph.
Joseph said it’s become a tradition to talk, or pray, to Philip each evening, when villagers from Yaohnanen and Yakel gather in their meeting places 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 says, pausing. “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.
Both 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 simple thatch huts and wearing nothing but grass skirts or a penis shield called a nambas.
Known as kastom, it’s a traditional way of life that’s under threat from the spread of Western civilization. Down a winding, rutted dirt track far from anywhere, people feel free to live this way, but when they make the trek to the island’s main town to sell the coffee beans they grow or buy rice, they usually put on clothes.
Joseph says he believes that the spirit of Philip, who was born in Greece, comes from Tanna and that one day he will return. On that day, he says, the fish will leap from the sea and life will become eternal. He says he’s not worried that Philip is aging and may soon die.
“The movement will always continue,” he says. “And, from my opinion, or from what we believe, the spirit in Prince Philip won’t die.”
It’s 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 got a boost when U.S. servicemen 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 symbols like the American flag and once a year they march, drill-style, while carrying imitation rifles fashioned from bamboo sticks.
Joseph said the John Frum movement grew at a difficult time, as elders tried to cling to traditional beliefs and prophecies but were mocked and imprisoned for them as Christianity took hold.
The Prince Philip movement got 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, and 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 says.
Lindstrom said that while the Prince Philip movement might have begun organically enough, it may 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 United States.
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,” says Joseph. “It’s 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 says Philip responded: It’s too cold in England.
Joseph says only the chiefs can decipher what the allegory about the tropical fruit, also called a papaya, really means. But if he was to guess, he says, it’s that it was not yet time for Philip to visit Tanna.
A trickle of curious outsiders continues to visit these remote villages, which may be helping to sustain the movement and to encourage the ancient way of living. One such outsider is Jerzy Grebosz, a Polish computer scientist and nuclear physicist who often spends his vacation time living in Yakel, wearing nothing but slip-on shoes and a nambas.
“For me, travel in space is obvious, I’m from Europe. But travel in time — I’m just like going back 2,000 years with this experience,” he says. “Meeting these people, talking to them, sharing their problems, helping them sometimes. You really touch the culture, inside. So I’m very happy that they considered me as a friend.”
However, the one Westerner many here really want to see has never come.
“Philip, your father lived there,” says Nagia, pointing to the mountain. “We came to England to visit you. You must come. We love you.”
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