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Vanuatu islanders pray for fabled prince's return

The husband of the Queen of England has mythical status in a small corner of the South Pacific.

“They’ve heard about these islands, and if he’s not from there, there’s only one place he can be from: Tanna,” explains Huffman, who dislikes the term “cargo cult.” He says: “I would call it a visionary movement. It’s just one aspect of an incredibly sophisticated and very profound culture.”

Elsewhere on Tanna, certain tribes venerate a shadowy American figure called John Frum — possibly a legacy of the U.S. servicemen stationed in the New Hebrides during World War II, who brought with them large quantities of equipment and material goods. Hundreds of Tanna men were recruited to build roads, airstrips and bases. Decades on, John Frum’s followers daub “USA” on their chests, don GI-style uniforms and march barefoot around a parade ground, beneath a Stars and Stripes.

Huffman believes such movements originally took root as a reaction against efforts by Presbyterian missionaries to ban traditional customs and beliefs. “These cultures are taking elements of the outside world and slotting them into their own belief systems in a way that’s useful to them.”

According to various stories that have become tangled over time, Nathuan’s grandfather, Jack Naiva, met Prince Philip when he visited Vanuatu and presented him with a pig, or vice versa — a highly significant gesture in Vanuatu. It is also said that when the prince went ashore in the capital, Port Vila, he shook hands only with dignitaries from Tanna.

Naiva died in 2008 and is buried on the outskirts of Yaohnanen. A photograph of him holding a picture of the royal couple is embedded in his tombstone.

Describing what the islanders believe will happen when the prince returns, Huffman once wrote: “At the very moment that he sets foot ashore, mature kava plants [from which the local spirit is brewed] will sprout all over the island; all the old people will shed their skin like snakes and become young again; there will be no more sickness and no more death ... a man will be able to take any woman he wants.”

On June 10, the islanders will stage a feast, traditional dancing and kava drinking. “Every year we celebrate his birthday,” says Nathuan. “We get together and talk about him. We feel happy. We can feel his presence. Now we’re waiting for him to honor his promise to come back in 2010.”