At this point in our little quest I’m sitting in the back of a pickup truck hurtling across an ash plain in the shadow of Mt. Yasur. The scenery reminds me more of a moonscape than a tropical South Pacific Island. There’s ash everywhere. It’s covering my face, in my mouth, worked itself right down to the roots of my hair. My eyes are watering and now I have ash and tears trickling from the corner of my eyes.
Views of Mt. Yasur from the ash plains.
There is no lush vegetation, only a few sparse bushes and shrubs that sprout out of the ash fields seeking sunlight. A portion of our path takes us through Lake Isiwi, long since drained into the ocean taking a portion of Sulfur Bay village with it. Some people blame Prophet Fred and his Black Magic for this. I’m not entirely sold on the idea but am entertaining all possibilities on this island of magic.
Hey Stanley! Can you stop the truck and I’ll just walk from here? “No, you’ll never find your way to the village. We’ll drive you further.” But aren’t we driving next to the river that leads right to the village? Can’t I just follow that? “Yes, but there is a huge drop off. You can’t follow the river.” Ok, how about I just follow the road and keep the river on my left and the volcano on my right? Nothing but silence. Apparently I wasn’t getting out of this dusty ash trap of a truck anytime soon. I really just wanted to walk in some peace and quiet, feeling my way around the volcano. I knew where the Sulfur Bay village was, I knew it was only a few KM to the ocean so it couldn’t be far. Brady, Paul, and Josje were hiking over on the trail from Port Resolution and I was hoping to rendezvous with them on the way. So be it, for some reason they wanted to drop me off right in the center of the village.
About 5 minutes later we drove across a home-made cattle guard and into a small village. I didn’t recognize this village, even though Stanley referred to this as the John Frum village. It was definitely a different village than we visited the first night swimming in from the ocean. A few hurried Bislamic sentences later and the truck turned around and started back the way we came.
Stanley! Why are we going back? “I talked with them and they said someone was walking to Port Resolution today. They will see your brother and friends and then they will turn around back to Port Resolution. They are bringing Kava back over the hill so there is no reason to come here. I think you should come back to Port Resolution and drink Kava with us.” It took some convincing but I finally got Stanley to stop the truck long enough so I could jump out. “What time do you want us to pick you up?” asked Stanley as the truck started to roll away. It was obvious that Stanley wanted me to come back to Port Resolution, and for one reason or another he didn’t want me to stay in the village. I believe it was his sense of hospitality. We were anchored by his village, so it was up to him to make sure we were looked after. There was no danger and we had an invitation from the village so I felt comfortable. I explained that we had our camping gear with us and would probably stay the night in the village.
Seeming appeased the truck pulled away in a cloud of ash and after a few minutes of leisurely walking and I was back in the village. A small elderly man approached me and with a friendly smile said “Halo. I’m Issak.” BINGO! So that’s why I didn’t recognize the village. This wasn’t the original Sulfur Bay village where the John Frum movement was first centered, this was Chief Issak Wan’s village.
Chief Issak sitting down for our chat.
You see, there was a rift in the John Frum movement about 11 years ago. Everything was going great for the John Frummers. They were happily raising their flags, celebrating John Frum day on February 15th, and waiting for the return of John when a mischievous man by the name of Fred returned. Fred left Sulfur bay in the 1990’s (no one really will say exactly when) and spent some time fishing on a Taiwanese fishing boat. This is where the story starts to get weird, as if the whole situation wasn’t weird already.
After some years of fishing, somewhere off the coast of Africa in the darkness of the open ocean, Fred started receiving visions. Messages from God. The messages told Fred that the people in Sulfur Bay were not following a good path, that they must change their ways. So Fred quit fishing and returned back home to Tanna to deliver the word back to his people. He arrived and immediately started causing a rift in the movement. This ultimately led to separate villages, burned huts, a lot of ill will, and two distinct groups- “The John Frum Movement” (The original Frummers) and Fred’s followers, know as “John Frum Unity in Christ” or something similar to that. It’s really hard to nail down the name because everyone calls it something different.
I sat down with Issak and a group of village men under a simple palm thatched roof hut. The walls are open, woven matts haphazardly cover the volcanic ash to make a floor. This is the simple shelter in the middle of the village where they do their dancing on Friday nights. Issak spoke only a little English and brought in the local primary school teacher as a translator. Videl was very excited to speak English to an American and translate on behalf of the Chief. He said English was his favorite subject and he wanted to further his studies at the university. I should have told him about somebody like AJ Hoge that can help people learn English without having to receive a formal, in-person education.
The village center, where the worshipping dances are held.
I told Issak that I was very interested in the John Frum people. I had read quite a bit about their movement in various books and I thought maybe some of it wasn’t true. I wanted to ask him some questions to get the real answers if that was ok. “Yes, that is ok” Videl said. “The chief wants to know where you and your friends are from, the ones that are walking over from Port Resolution.” Word travels fast apparently. Me, my brother, and our friend are from America. We have another friend from New Zealand on our boat. After a few minutes of rapid Bislamic the reply came back. “The Chief says that the people of Tanna and the people of America are one- like brothers. There is no difference. America is a Super Power nation and gets their power from the Eagle, the most powerful bird. The people of Tanna get their power from the Volcano.” The volcano rumbled, powerfully shaking the ground. Seriously, I’m not making this up at all. It happens about every 5 minutes. It felt like a small earth quake and I could see a cloud of ash drift overhead in the trade winds. No one else even bothered to look up.
“The Chief says that he visited America in 1995. He traveled to Los Angeles, Houston, North Carolina, New York, and Washington D.C. He met with one of President Clinton’s aids while in Washington. The American government sends a new flag to Tanna every year for them to fly. He says the wealth and power of America are immense.” I tried to imagine this Ni-Vanuatu villager roaming the streets of the Big Apple, mesmerized by the 100+ story buildings and the millions and millions of people. I asked how the Chief was able to go on such a trip. Videl replied “An American visitor came here and got along well with Chief Issak. He paid for him to tour America.” Pretty sweet gig I thought. “The Chief wants to know how you get your news on the sailboat. Are you able to keep up on current events? Did you hear about the killing of Osama Bin Laden?” asked Videl. Yep, we heard about that from some friends before we left New Zealand. We get some of our news from the Internet when we have access, and also from emails from friends and family. Wow, way out here on a small island with no electricity and no radios they were pretty up to date.
Chief Issak all dressed up during his White House visit.
One of his prize possessions- a US Navy Officers hat. We weren’t allowed to take it out of the plastic.
The Chief’s hut, where all his treasures are stored.
“The Chief wants to know how you feel about Obama. He is a Black man like us and now he is in charge of the most powerful nation in the world.” Wow, straight to politics. Ok- I’ll admit that I am not 100% up to date on the policies but I do think he is working an uphill battle in a tough environment. He is certainly better than Bush. They all smiled widely when this was translated and nodded their heads in agreement. I’m pretty sure I heard the mocked sounds of bombs being dropped. A few more sentences in Bislamic followed. “The Chief says that the World Trade Center was a terrible tragedy, but it was a wake up call to America. It was God telling America to make some changes, to change their path. In fact we were not surprised by the news. We had known for quite some time that something was going to happen.” You knew?!?!? How did you know in advance? “We knew over a week in advance. The spirits let us know.”
The volcano rumbled again, shaking the ground and belching smoke. I’m the only one that looked up.
And on and on and on the conversation went. When I felt like I had built up a little trust I started to ask some of the juicy questions. So who is John Frum? Is he American? Why do you worship on Friday? Do you really believe that if you raise the flags every day and parade around with bamboo rifles John will return on a white ship bringing heaps and heaps of cargo? This brought up a torrent of Bislamic. Videl finally replied “John is like Jesus. Do you know where Jesus is from?” Caught a little off guard I told them I thought he was born in Bethlehem and spent most of his time in the Middle East. “So people all around the world worship Jesus but it doesn’t matter where he is from. His teachings and word are still all the same. It’s the same way with John Frum. We don’t know where he was born. Maybe America, maybe not. It doesn’t matter to us. We believe that if we are true in our faith then he will return. People have been waiting for Jesus for a long time. We have not been waiting for John for so long.”
Videl continued “The Chief says that Jesus died on a Friday so that is the true day to worship. Sunday means nothing. The Presbyterian and others have it all wrong. Especially the Seventh Day Adventists! What good does worshipping on a Saturday do?” So what’s the deal with the Red Cross? People say it’s so the US military will come back and give everyone free medical care. This one received a quick reply. “The crosses are red because Jesus spilled his blood on the cross. That’s the only reason.”
I asked the Chief if anyone could still speak with John. He replied almost instantly. “Yes, of course. My father was the first person to speak with John and now I still can.” So how do you receive messages from John? Do you get visions? Do you hear voices? “Yes, I get messages. Mostly it’s in the form of spirits delivering the messages to me.” So tell me about these spirits? What forms do they take? “The spirits take many forms. They are in the earth around us, in the land, in the volcano, in the animals. John used to often come as a Tiger.” Are there any tigers on Tanna? “No, there are no Tigers here so it’s proof that John used to visit my father this way.”
So, what about the spirits that live in the volcano? I heard that John Frum lives in the Volcano with an army of 5,000 men? I also heard that there is a secret tunnel leading from under the volcano to America. This brought about much hushed conversation between a number of tribal elders. The reply finally came back. “No, of course there is no army with John in the volcano. There is also no secret tunnel. Sometimes people just write things because they make a good story. They come here for a few minutes, scribble down some notes, and then go away. They don’t take the time to understand. We really hope that you spend enough time with us to understand. There is much to tell but we must trust you first. Also we never speak of Kastom in the village area. We must go to the Nakamal where we drink Kava. Only then can we openly discuss these things. There are no women and no cameras allowed in the Nakamal.”
So on February 15th I hear there is a big celebration. Why February 15th? There was a short pause, another short translation session between the Chief and Videl. “February 15th, 1957 is the day we had a huge celebration in Sulfur Bay. Thousands of villagers from Tanna came to celebrate. Some of our leaders that were imprisoned by the *Condominium* were released because the Americans came and told them to release our leaders. We were visited by an American ship called the Yankee and the commander told us we should work hard, just like the American people. Only then would we be prosperous. So every February 15th we celebrate the freedom of our leaders and America’s friendship. We march in formation and hoist our flags. We have five flag poles to hoist flags for our celebration. We fly the US Marines flag, the US Navy flag, the Company Flag, the Stars and Stripes, and the Vanuatu flag. We have a huge parade.”
*The Condominium government was something established by the French and British. They both had interests in the New Hebrides in the early 20th century. Neither would cede power to the other so they created a dual government in 1906. There were two sets of leaders, two sets of laws, two court systems, two prisons, two police forces, etc. The French prison had better food and served wine (of course), while the British prison was more humane for example. The British hanged people while the French used their guillotine. It was a very un-productive way to run things and people often got lost in their legal system depending on who’s laws you were prosecuted under. The Condominium was often referred to as “The Pandemonium” It wasn’t until 1980 that this system was abolished and Vanuatu gained back their independence.*
The huge US Flag only raised on February 15th.
US Marines Flag raised only on February 15th.
Village “Headquarters” that has been under construction for 11 years. When finished the Chief assured me it would have Internet, Fax, and Phone lines. He also said it would be done in a weeks time…..
Did many people from Tanna help the American’s in WWII? “Oh yes, in fact over 1,000 men from Tanna sailed to Efate to help the American’s. We sent the most men out of all of Vanuatu. The Japanese were very bad, killing very many people. We helped the American’s by unloading ships and working on construction projects. The American’s were very good to us. They paid us for our work and gave us food. They even had black soldiers, just like us. America is a Super Power and can do such things.
So Chief, why did you move your village up closer to the Volcano and off of Sulfur Bay? “There was much trouble with Fred when he returned from fishing. He was preaching lies, telling people that we were not following a good path. He was making trouble with Black Magic, making people sick. He wanted to go back to the Presbyterian church AND worship John Frum but on Wednesday, not the true day of Friday. So the true John Frum followers created this new village 11 years ago. This is the true center of the John Frum Movement. The people in Sulfur bay now are very confused. They go to Presbyterian Church, they go to Seventh Day Adventist Church, they dance for John Frum on Wednesday and Friday. But they only are half believers. They have no original music, no composers. They copy all our music. They have no Kastom in that village. They are a mis-led people.”
I heard that Fred drained Lake Isiwi and it destroyed part of the village. “Yes, that is true. The lake that went all the way to the volcano drained and destroyed part of the village. He said he saw the lake drain in a vision, and that the people should move out of their huts. When this happened Fred gained many followers. He told people that if they followed him to the volcano they would go to heaven in three days. They were to leave all their possessions and bring only food for three days. So he went up the volcano with his followers.”
So how many followers did he have? A few hundred? “Oh no, he had 4,666 followers.” WHAT?!?!? Never mind the 666 part, but he lead almost 5,000 people up a volcano to be saved by Jesus after camping for three days? “Yes.” And then what happened? “So Jesus never came. But the people waited and waited. They built huts and started to live in the jungle by where we plant the gardens. This was very bad, they were destroying the gardens that belonged to everyone. Our food was no longer good.” So what happened? “I went to Port Vila on Efate. I told the government what was going on, that Fred was living on the volcano and destroying our gardens with his followers. The police came back to Tanna with me. We kicked everyone off the volcano, sent them back to their old villages, and burned down all their huts.” You burned down their huts?!?!?!? Wow, this is some serious stuff I thought. Something right out of the middle ages, only this was about a decade ago.
So where does Fred live now? “Oh, he lives over by Port Resolution with his family.” Do you think it would be ok to go talk to him? “Yes, of course. I’m sure he would be very happy to talk to you. ” This confirmed a discussion we had with someone in Port Resolution, who said that Fred’s hut was the one with laundry hanging, just up the hillside and plainly visible from Delos.
By this time it was almost 4PM. I asked if anyone had seen Brady, Paul, or Josje. The answer was no, but they guaranteed me that the path to Sulfur Bay lead through their village. They could not get through undetected. I mentioned being invited to the other village for Kava, and that I may walk down there. There was a discussion amongst the elders again. “Brian, the other village has no Kastom. We really think you should stay here with us and wait for your friends.” Ok, looks like I’m hanging solo with Chief Issak and company for a while longer.
The Chief suddenly stood up, looked at his watch (yes, he has a watch), and shouted “TAKEM DOWN FLAG!!!”. Apparently in our very interesting discussion time had slipped away from everyone. It was 4:15PM and the good old Stars and Stripes and Vanuatu flag were still flying high. The Chief’s son and another man ran to their huts and appeared minutes later in WWII vintage army uniforms. Too cool! They marched to the flag posts, and with military precision simultaneously lowered both flags . With split second timing they folded the flags, turned about-face, and marched off back to their huts with the flags folded and resting on their forearms. All the villagers had gathered to watch the show and clapped to show their approval. Just as suddenly as it began it ended and everyone went back about their business of lounging around.
The US and Vanuatu flags are lowered every day at 4PM.
The flags are carefully folded and stored until raised at 7AM the next morning.
The Chief’s son showing off their spiffy US Army uniforms.
“So Brian, will you stay and drink Kava with us tonight?” asked Videl. Yes Videl, that’s an offer too hard to refuse. “Ok, good. We will be able to share much with you then. Hopefully your friends will walk through also. The Chief says you are to sleep in his son’s hut. Your bag is already there.
To be continued…….
Yep, even the Chief has a business card and a mobile number. You can text him if you want, but you have to know Bislamic of course.