For us, America is very good, says cult leader

Telegraph, UK/February 20, 2007
By Nick Squires in Lamakara

As global public opinion sours towards the United States, Americans weary of the relentless negativity can take heart from an exotic corner of the South Pacific.

The US's standing in the world may have plummeted under President George W Bush, but a bizarre cargo cult in Vanuatu holds America in god-like esteem.

The Jon Frum movement celebrated the 50th anniversay of its founding yesterday, with a lavish feast in which village men dressed up as American soldiers and marched in front of a giant Stars and Stripes flag fluttering from a bamboo pole.

Miniature American flags festooned trees lining the black sand parade ground which forms the focus of Lamakara village, the headquarters of the cult, on the jungle-clad island of Tanna.

Older men dressed as officers marshaled the crowd of several thousand cult devotees, while 50 young men shouldered their bamboo "rifles" and came to attention in a perfectly orchestrated drill.

The letters "USA" were daubed across their chests and backs in vivid red paint as they wheeled and stamped beneath a relentless tropical sun, a "drill sergeant" barking orders in Bislama, Vanuatu's pidgin English.

A tin band and small boys with bamboo flutes and American-style forage caps played The Star Spangled Banner against a background of thunderous roars from nearby Mount Yasur, a live volcano in which the spirit of Jon Frum is said to live.

"For us, America is very good," said village chief Isaac Wan, 67, the leader of the cult, barefoot but dressed in a smart American naval officer's uniform and sitting beneath another large US flag.

"There's a friendship between Tanna people and America from the war. When they came here looking for people to help them build airstrips and carry their supplies, we gave them a thousand men."

The origins of the cult date back to the 1930s, when Britain and France jointly ran what was then the colony of New Hebrides.

Tanna's inhabitants bridled at colonial rule and the missionaries who badgered them to embrace Christianity, stop drinking the mildly narcotic drink kava and abandon other customary ways, known in pidgin English as kastom.

Village elders tell of how a mysterious outsider came to their forbears in a series of apparitions, telling them to go back to their traditional way of life.

The idea of a messiah-like outsider was given a huge boost during the Second World War, when hundreds of Tannese men were recruited by the Americans to help build roads, airstrips and military bases.

They were immensely impressed by the huge amounts of "cargo" - tanks, ships, weapons, medicine and food - brought by the US military.

The shadowy spirit figure they already believed in gradually assumed a name and a nationality - Jon Frum is believed to be a contraction of John From America, a reference perhaps to a soldier who showed them particular generosity.

The movement was officially founded on Feb 15, 1957, to celebrate the release of cult leaders who had been imprisoned by the Anglo-French authorities.

For the last 50 years cultists have clung to the belief that by dressing up as GIs and venerating US symbols they can somehow tempt back the cargo which appeared during the war.

Gifts sent by Americans who have visited the village only reinforce the cult's conviction that one day Jon Frum will return, bringing with him American munificence.

"This is how far we have to go right now to find a country which loves and respects America," said Cevin Soling, a film-maker from New York and one of the few foreigners to witness yesterday's celebrations.

"They love America for the principles we once stood for - defending others but not trying to control them."

In a thatched hut in the centre of the village a cult shrine promises that "Jon Promise America - One Day He'll Be Returning".

"When the missionaries came they wanted to destroy our kastom," said Rutha Napat, 30, a villager. "But the Americans helped us and the friendship between us is still strong."

Around a fifth of the 30,000 people who live on Tanna are cult believers, with the rest either traditional animists or church-goers.

"I'm embarrassed when people on other islands ask me about Jon Frum," said Andrew Koda, 23, a Christian youth worker. "The Jon Frum people are like children playing games. Jon Frum is a myth."

Anthropologists regard the cult, one of many which flowered in the Pacific after the war, as a highly successful way for islanders to maintain their culture in the face of colonialism, Christianity and modernity.

The movement even has its own MP and recently brought out a CD of traditional ballads - "Ol singsing blong Jon Frum", or Songs of Jon Frum.

"The movement started at a time when there was severe suppression of the old ways by Presbyterian missionaries," said Ralph Regenvanu, director of the Vanuatu National Cultural Council.

"When the British and French arrested the leaders, that just made it grow more. These days it's a cultural preservation movement as much as a cargo cult."

While US Navy and US Marine Corps flags flap from poles above the parading 'soldiers', the Union Jack is conspicuously absent.

"Captain Cook was the first white man to come to Tanna, in 1774, then the British and French officials. They were very bad because they wanted to destroy our kastom," said Chief Isaac, as his miniature army was put through its paces. "We're waiting for America to come back, like they did in the war."

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