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Prince Philip, they hardly know ye

A South Pacific 'cargo cult' petitions its deity for bags of rice and a Land Rover.

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Mildewed and damp, they are an incongruous sight in the middle of a jungle. But the three portraits of Britain's Prince Philip, husband to Queen Elizabeth II, are the most prized possessions of a cluster of villages in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu.

As unlikely as it sounds, a few thousand villagers on the island of Tanna worship the 85-year-old prince as a deity, holding hope that he will one day appear among them, dispensing gifts. For years, they say, he has moved among them in spirit.

"He is a god, not a man," says village chief Jack Naiva, a wiry, elderly man with graying hair and broken teeth. "Sometimes we hear his voice, but we can't see him."

The unusual beliefs held by the inhabitants of Yaohnanen and surrounding villages in the jungles of Tanna first emerged in the 1960s, anthropologists say. Villagers took an ancient prophecy that the son of a mountain spirit would venture faraway in search of a powerful woman to marry and melded it with what Christian missionaries had taught them about the returning Messiah.

Their convictions were bolstered by the respect accorded the Duke of Edinburgh by the colonial authorities of the Anglo-French territory of the New Hebrides – as Vanuatu was known until independence in 1980. Villagers were used to seeing the prince's portrait, and that of the queen, in police stations and government offices.

Their veneration for the queen's consort is tinged with irony, given Philip's history of politically incorrect gaffes about foreigners and minorities. He once asked a group of Australian Aborigines if they still threw spears at one another; he inquired of a black British member of parliament what country he came from, and he advised some British students in China not to stay too long for fear of developing "slitty eyes."


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