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 the Vanuatu island nation holds America in god-like esteem.
The Jon Frum movement celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding yesterday with a lavish feast in which village men dressed up as US soldiers and marched in front of a giant Stars and Stripes flag on 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 island of Tanna.
Older men dressed as officers marshalled 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 red paint as they paraded beneath a relentless tropical sun, a drill sergeant barking orders in Bislama, Vanuatu pidgin English.
A tin band and small boys with bamboo flutes played The Star Spangled Banner against a background of roars from nearby Mount Yasur, a live volcano in which the spirit of Jon Frum is said to live.
Members of the cult imitate American troops
“For us, America is very good,” said village chief Isaac Wan, 67, the leader of the cargo cult, barefoot but dressed in a smart American naval officer’s uniform and sitting under a 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 1,000 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.
Map of the south Pacific
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 ways. 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 build roads, airstrips and bases. They were impressed by the large amounts of cargo â€“ tanks, weapons, medicine and food â€“ brought by the US military. The shadowy spirit figure they already believed in gradually assumed a name and a nationality â€“ Jon Frum is believed to be a contraction of John From America, a reference perhaps to a soldier who showed particular generosity.
The movement was officially founded on Feb 15, 1957, to celebrate the release of cult leaders who had been imprisoned by the ruling 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 wartime cargo.
In a thatched hut in the centre of the village a cult shrine says: Jon Promise America â€“ One Day He’ll Be Returning.
Around a fifth of the 30,000 people who live on Tanna are cult believers, with the rest either traditional animists or Christian church-goers.