The South Pacific nation
of Vanuatu has produced dozens of prophets over the last century.
The latest has called his followers to a shoulder of an active volcano,
where they are praying for spontaneous circumcisions and other assorted
This story appeared in Western Living,
met the doctor just as the sun was sinking beyond the pool bar at
Iririki Island Resort. I wanted to know about the cargo cult. The
doctor told me to forget about the cult. He had a better story,
and he would share it with me if I bought him dinner.
doctor's name was Don Fockler. He looked like he had fallen off
one of the yachts the South Pacific trades blew in to Port Vila.
He had the Tevas, the crow's feet and the easy slouch of a man who
had lived roughly and was pleased about it. He could have done with
a shave. He was on his way back home to Vancouver Island.
polished off a Fiji Bitter and told me how he came to meet the prophet.
months before, he had signed up with a Canadian aid group that dropped
Canadian doctors, one at a time, on a volcanic lump 250 kilometres
south of Port Vila. Tanna Island was not like the capitol of Vanuatu,
he said. There were no swimming pools, cold beer and duty-free shopping.
Tanna was on the very edge of things. A week after Fockler arrived
he received a scribbled note summoning him to a village on the far
side of the island. The request was vague but it seemed to have
originated from the national police, who had sailed their only frigate
down from Port Vila to investigate rumours about a mysterious prophet.
prophet went by the name of Fred. Word was that Fred had led hundreds
of followers to a makeshift camp on the shoulder of Tanna's volcano.
They were waiting to be carried to heaven. Or something.
had it that Fred had gone off the deep end,” said Fockler. "He
was having all kinds of visions, and apparently he was up to no
kind of no good?" I said.
don't know, ritual child abuse, or something like that. There were
all kinds of stories, but the police never actually found any evidence.”
is why they called in the doctor. Fockler didn't realize it at the
time, but the police were looking for a means of getting the prophet
the hell off Tanna. Befuddled but curious, he loaded two of his
kids and a bag full of anti-psychotic drugs into the hospital truck
and drove across the island. The police weren't there, but the hospital's
matron was, with a new accusation. He said the prophet had leprosy.
If so, Fred would have to be removed and quarantined in order to
save his neighbours from the horrific flesh-wasting disease.
was met near the base of the volcano by a gauntlet of three hundred
of Fred's stone-faced followers, all men. They knew why the doctor
was there, and they were not pleased. Fockler wished he had not
brought his kids. He used a translator to negotiate with
the villagers, who reluctantly permitted him to pass. Such was the
authority a foreign doctor wielded on Tanna.
had barely begun to trek up the mountain when he came face to face
with Fred himself. The prophet was a big man with messy hair. It
was clear that he had indeed suffered from leprosy. His eyebrows
and hands were slightly misshapen. But the condition was clearly
inactive and not contagious. The doctor and the prophet sat down
together by the trail. Fockler pretended to examine Fred's skin,
while actually conducting a quickie mental status assessment:
asked him if he saw visions, you know, or heard any messages, and
he said 'I can't tell you that, that's the source of my power.'
Well, that pretty much shut down my psychological assessment."
must have heard the stories. He must have been told about Fred's
claim to have pulled a Moses and drained the lake at the base of
the volcano. About the hundreds of people who had abandoned their
home villages and their gardens to join the prophet. About the squalor
at the mountain squat. And in those moments, the doctor must also
have realized that he wielded tremendous power in his diagnosis.
Fred stay or should he go? The doctor closed his medical case and
marched back down the mountain with his children. When he reached
Sulphur Bay the crowd of three hundred men was still there, waiting
for his decision.
decided it was not his job to do the police's dirty work—or to play
God. And besides, Fred didn't seem overtly psychotic. He told the
men he was not going to take Fred away. He would let them keep their
prophet. The men cheered, the police sailed their frigate back to
Port Vila and Fred was left to count his visions.
looked at me and grinned.
what about my dinner?" he said.
men have been trying to play God in Melanesia (the name given to
that part of the South Pacific inhabited by black-skinned people--hence
the Latin, mela ) for nearly two centuries. By that I mean
they have been alternately bombing, kidnapping and evangelizing
the islanders. Especially evangelizing. The travel writer Paul Theroux
once observed that rumours of cannibalism were like catnip to missionaries.
It certainly seemed to be true in Melanesia.
of nineteenth-century missionaries perished in the archipelago.
Among them were a hardy pair of Nova Scotian Presbyterians. The
Rev. G.N. Gordon and his wife settled on Erromanga, a day's paddle
from Tanna. The Gordons were popular until an outbreak of measles
spread across the island. The locals blamed the new God, and then
they ate the Gordons.
great grandfather cruised through Melanesia on an Anglican mission
ship in 1892. I was following his route though the islands, driven
by reports that there were still some shores where the old spirits
and traditions--all the things that islanders call kastom --still
prevailed. I liked that idea. It made me feel as though the world
was not so small.
was on the top of my list. It had a reputation for being a kind
of psycho-spiritual Disneyland, a place where mainline churches,
holy-rolling fundamentalist preachers, pagan priests and witch-doctors
were still wrestling for souls. But what made Tanna the anthropologists'
favorite was its cargo cult. Thousands of Tannese worshipped a spirit
whose sole purpose seemed to be to quash Christianity.
cult was born in 1941, when Vanuatu was still the New Hebrides,
a colony jointly administered by Britain and France. A mysterious
stranger was said to have summoned Tanna's chiefs to a secret meeting.
He said they should turn their backs on the Presbyterian missionaries
who had banned their traditional dances. They should revive their
old rainmaking magic and circumcision ceremonies. They should again
prepare the narcotic drink, kava, from the roots of a local shrub,
and they should guzzle it until the air was full of messages. The
prophet promised that if they did all these things, he would return
on a great white ship loaded with cargo from America. The man's
name was John Frum.
flew: Some islanders said that John Frum was the King of America,
or perhaps the son of God. Others insisted that thousands of his
soldiers were inside the volcano, waiting for the right moment to
charge out of the bubbling caldera and chase the British and French
away. Colonial administrators were terrified the cult would lead
to all-out rebellion. More than 140 of Frum's followers were arrested
and sent to jail in Port Vila.
Frum's prophesies began to come true.
American navy arrived in Port Vila shortly after the Japanese attack
on Pearl Harbour. Most of Tanna's men went to work for them. U.S.
soldiers were spectacularly generous, handing out pots, pans, cigarettes
and tinned meat. It was the cargo windfall the Frummers had waited
G.I. reportedly gave them a U.S. flag to fly above their village.
He told them America would always be there to protect them from
their colonial masters. For years the Frummers commemorated the
bond every February 15, when faithful donned U.S. Army surplus gear
and marched in formation around the village of Sulphur Bay armed
with homemade wooden rifles.
was not hard to track down John Frum's followers. I caught a cargo
boat south to Tanna, then hopped a ride across the island in the
back of a pickup truck. A week after my dinner with Fockler I marched
into the village of the cult's supposed leader.
Isag Wan was a grizzled, bone-thin septuagenarian who was forever
kicking at the mongrels that followed him through his hamlet of
thatch huts. He wore a khaki jacket with "U.S. Army" stamped
on the breast. I handed him a bag of rice and some tinned meat.
The chief responded by handing me a half-coconut shell cup full
was not as pleasant a welcome as it might sound, because the Tannese
employ a distressingly rustic method of brewing their sacred drink.
They feed the shrub's roots to young boys, who chew and chew, then
regurgitate the pulpy remains onto a hankie. Water is poured over
the fibre, and the drippings collected in a coconut shell below.
chief downed his cup in one gulp, then spat a bouquet of spray towards
the forest, grunting a quiet incantation. Then it was my turn. As
I drank, the phlegmish lad who had chewed my kava cleared his sinuses
loudly. The kava tasted like dishwater and behaved like dental anaesthetic.
My tongue went numb. After two more shells the night air began to
feel like strands of gauze wrapping around me. It was exquisitely
calm. Dogs and pigs wrestled in the shadows. I slept deeply on a
bed of grass mats.
the morning the chief woke me so we could stand at attention together
as the U.S. flag was raised above the village. It was Friday, he
said. John Frum's day. That night the people gathered beneath the
flagpole. They played guitars, danced and sang songs about John
Frum. Some of them pulled grass skirts up over their shorts. The
cult did not feel like a cult. The night was cheery and playful,
like a high-school sock-hop. Nobody seemed to know--or particularly
care--if John Frum would ever be conjured from across the sea.
I cornered Isag Wan to ask him about Frum, he was much keener to
rant about the prophet, Fred.
is not a real prophet," the chief told me. (Actually, he said
"Fred hemi no stap wan prophet," using bislama, a pidgin
which employs English words and island grammar.) "I know where
Fred's power comes from. He is using the power of the black sea
snake to trick us all.”
would be impossible for me to catalogue all the chief's accusations
about Fred. But these were his key points: Fred had used some kind
of magic involving the killing of 19 pigs to drain the lake at the
bottom of the volcano Yasur. The resulting flood washed away several
houses in Sulphur Bay. Fred had promised to turn all the old men
of Sulphur Bay into children again, but that was a lie because the
old men were clearly still old men. Fred also promised that if all
the people followed him to the shoulder of the volcano, Jesus would
come and take them all to heaven. That hadn't happened yet, either.
had eclipsed John Frum as the overriding concern on the island.
Everyone had a rumour to pass on: Some accused Fred of cursing people.
Others said that Fred was a pervert: according to one story, Fred
enjoyed sitting in a pit above which were placed two thin boards.
Women were forced to step across those boards so Fred could peer
up their skirts. One Mormon missionary told me that Fred had thrown
babies into the volcano.
were rumours. What seemed more alarming to me was the effect the
prophet was having on human geography. Families from all over Tanna
had abandoned their gardens and their pigs in order to join Fred
on the volcano. Land was going fallow. Pigs were disappearing. Things
were falling apart. Meanwhile, while Fred's followers waited for
their ride to heaven, they pilfered the gardens of the villages
at the base of their mountain. It was rumoured that a handful of
old folks and children had already died up at Fred's camp. People
said the Canadian doctor could have put a stop to this. But he did
course I needed to meet Fred. The best way to reach his camp was
a trail from Port Resolution, on the far side of the volcano.
left Sulphur Bay on foot. I walked to the base of the volcano. There
was a mile-wide plain of ash and scoured earth where once had been
a lake. Yasur rose in the middle of it all like a great Saharan
Land Cruiser rumbled towards me across the plain. I hailed it and
got in. We were half-way across the ash plain when a deafening explosion
shattered the afternoon. A salvo of rocks flew out of the mountaintop
like pebbles thrown up by some giant hand. The mountain belched
a black mushroom of smoke, then fell quiet again. The driver swerved
for a moment, then we continued on our way.
Resolution was a postcard. The bay glowed electric blue. Men threw
nets from outrigger canoes. Steam curled from the forested eastern
foothills of the volcano. The bay had not always enjoyed a reputation
for friendliness. Of his reception in 1774, Captain James Cook wrote:
"One fellow shewed us his back side in such a manner that it
was not necessary to have an interpreter to explain his meaning."
found the chief of Port Resolution lying on a grass mat on the floor
of his hut, clutching his abdomen. The chief had been sick for months.
His family was sure it was Fred who had caused the malady.
people were scared of Fred. It took me three days to convince anyone
to lead me to the prophet's camp. When I did find a volunteer, he
took me only as far as the base of the mountain, then he complained
that just looking at Fred would make him sick. He drew a map in
the dirt and I carried on alone.
followed a well-trodden footpath up the mountain. Coconut palms
gave way to jungle, which gave way to a broken landscape of stumps,
cracked coconut palms and clinging brambles. I heard screams and
hoots in the forest. Children with machetes hacked branches from
breadfruit trees. I saw adults, too, all coming down from the mountain
with empty baskets and water jugs. One old man grabbed me by the
shirtsleeve and pulled me close. "Go on," he hissed in
my ear. "He is waiting for you."
followed the path through a great maze of vines and spiraling banyan
roots, up a series of cliffs and onto a ridge pock-marked with vents,
which steamed and oozed iron-red mud.
rain hit just as I entered the camp. It was squalid. Hundreds of
grass huts jostled for space between a series of mud ravines. Children
shrieked and rolled in the muck. Sores glistened on their ankles
and on their heads. There was a dirt parade ground too, with a bamboo
pole planted dead centre. Dangling limply from it was the U.S. flag.
man stepped forward.
I'm Alfred. Come with me."
followed him towards a broad, open-air shelter. Trailing behind
us was what appeared to be the village idiot: a quiet fellow with
an abnormally large head. He made me nervous. He walked so close
I could see the patches of hair missing between his dreadlocks,
and the tears that streamed constantly from his left eye. He wore
an untidy beard and a filthy ski parka. But it was the man's head
that captivated me. It was as though it had been fashioned from
rubber and then squeezed at the temples, or melted, so that his
forehead seemed on the verge of collapsing around his eyes. He had
no eyebrows. Of course. Leprosy. This was Fred.
sat down and I explained that had come to help Fred share his story
with the world. It was almost true.
did not speak like a prophet. He mumbled in his own language like
a drunken teenager. He explained that all the rumours about him
were untrue. He had not been playing with black magic and curses.
He had simply been passing on God's messages. As Fred dabbed at
his weeping eye with a rag, Alfred translated for me:
had started on the ocean. Fred had worked for years as a deck hand
on a Taiwanese fishing trawler. One day he saw lights in the sky.
They shot straight at him. Fred wasn't afraid when the lights came.
He just closed his eyes and went to sleep. That's when he heard
the voice. It reassured him. It gave him clues about the future.
Fred knew the voice was God talking to him. The voice told him he
should return to Tanna and share the messages with his neighbours.
Fred got back to Tanna the first thing the voice said to him was
that the water in the lake beside the volcano was polluted. Fred
prayed for the water to drain. It did. People began to believe in
him. The next year Fred predicted the bombing of the World Trade
Centre towers in New York.
When that prophesy came true, Fred's followers staged a sympathetic
parade in Port Vila. An appreciative American yachtie gave Fred
the Stars and Stripes. That gave Fred extra cred with the John Frummers.
more miracles?" I asked.
gave a long reply. Alfred gave me the Reader's Digest
Fred came back, the volcano used to explode and kill many people.
But Fred asked God to make it stop. It did. Oh, and the hurricanes.
There will be no hurricanes on Tanna for five years."
what are you doing up here on the mountain?"
told Fred to bring the people together in Unity," said Alfred.
"All the churches, John Frum people and kastom people must
come together—one people in Unity. So we sing John Frum songs on
Wednesday, and on Sunday we go to church."
rest of the days, I thought, his hungry followers steal food from
long will you stay up here?"
jumped in, excitedly: "Fred had a vision about that, too. He
saw that twelve virgin boys would be circumcised. Only then will
God tell us what we should do next."
thought all boys on Tanna were circumcised."
but these boys would be circumcised by God," said Alfred, quite
excited now. "The miracle has already begun. The first boy
has been cut. Nobody touched him. His parents simply found him circumcised
one morning last week."
I see it?"
course not. But you come back tomorrow. Tomorrow we bring John Frum
together with Jesus."
offered me his hand, which was as limp and cold as an oyster, then
he wandered off to gaze at the clouds. Before I left, Alfred made
me promise to return with my camera so the world would have proof
next morning Fred preached to a rapt crowd of four hundred. I couldn't
understand any of it, other than the words, "New Jerusalem,"
which he shouted over and over. Encouraged by Alfred, I climbed
through the brambles at the edge of the clearing and took photos.
That's when I learned there was no toilet in New Jerusalem.
followers wore rags. But today he was flanked by two men in white
shirts and neckties. They were ministers of the Presbyterian Church.
One told me he was delighted with Fred's teaching: Half a century
after the John Frummers had tossed the Presbyterians out of Sulphur
Bay, Fred was bringing the people and the church back together.
The minister wasn't bothered by Fred's messianic side, nor by the
prophet's accommodating stand towards magic, spirit worship and
thought the church was opposed to kastom," I said. He laughed
and slapped me on the back.
bible tells us that one day the world will become paradise. But
kastom tells us that one day Tanna will become paradise, like a
new Jerusalem. Tanna people know we have two choices. We pray for
both of them."
is your saviour Jesus or John Frum? You have to choose, don't you?"
friend, we know God will give the answer, and it will be one of
logic was mind-boggling. The English anthropologist, Ben Burt, once
told me that what impressed him most about Melanesians was their
capacity to hold onto apparently conflicting belief systems at the
same time. Island Christians thought nothing of sneaking off after
church in order to offer sacrifices to their ancestors. It was not
a sign of intellectual weakness, Burt told me. In fact it required
a sophisticated mind to perform such spiritual acrobatics.
I knew was that the Tannese seamed capable of believing in just
about anything. If you wanted to be a messiah, there was no better
place in the world to do it than Tanna.
midday the crowd had changed out of their rags. The men came first,
banana leaves tied around their heads and bare chests shining in
the sun. Women followed. Their faces were painted yellow and orange
like hornets. They wore feathers in their hair, and grass skirts
dyed with rainbow checkers. Wreaths of Christmas tinsel dangled
from their necks. Their dance was not like the cheery campfire rhumba
Isaak Wan had shown me. It was like a war. The men stamped the earth,
grunted and exhaled simultaneously in great stormy whooshes. The
women gathered around them in loose whorls, wailing and waving tree
branches at the Stars and Stripes. They charged the flag, jumped
back again and raced in circles until the plaza became a maelstrom
of dust and leaping bodies.
climbed to the roof of a hut and pulled out my camera. There was
Fred, sitting alone on a footstool, watching the dance with one
eye and me with the other. He nodded when I pointed my camera at
him. I raised the camera to my eye, and the frame was filled with
dust and shining skin. I stood up, straddling the gable of the hut,
raising my arms above my head, motioning for the crowd to move closer
together. The crowd responded.
I shouted when the dance ended. The crowd moved closer. Adrenaline
rushed through my veins.
your arms to the sky," I shouted. "Not Fred, just the
rest of you!" They did as they were told, sweat-drenched men,
dust-caked women, naked children, hundreds of them. Even the Presbyterian
pastors stretched their arms in the air. It felt quite wonderful
to see them obey.
looked down at the prophet, standing serene among his followers.
The doctor had been wrong about him. Fred was clearly nuts. His
stairway to heaven was as likely to materialize as John Frum himself.
His New Jerusalem was an environmental and social disaster. Fred's
followers were sickly and thin. They could not stay on the mountain
forever, raiding neighbours' gardens and cutting down the forest.
gazed down upon them all. Yes, I thought, it would be easy to play
God here, or play with God, as my great grandfather had tried to
do so many years ago. But when the dancers lowered their hands I
didn't shout for them to abandon Fred to his visions. I did not
order them to run back to their villages and their gardens, though
in the moment I felt strangely sure they would obey. I took my photos
and slid back down that thatch roof. I shook two hundred hands and
retreated, strangely humbled. Not because I was a convert to Unity.
Not because I held up any hope for more spontaneous circumcisions.
Not because playing God has fallen out of fashion among western
voyagers. But because, past the tree ferns and trembling banyans,
the volcano had continued to whistle and steam, and yet the thump
and rush of the dancers were forceful enough to obscure the eruption,
forceful enough to remind me that the world was not yet so small.
quite simply, I liked that idea.