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South Pacific

The false messiahs of Vanuatu

Some villagers on Vanuatu believe Prince Philip was the incarnation of a mountain god. Dan McGarry/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past 50 years, a steady stream of Westerners have arrived in the remote South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu claiming to be the messiah, says Christopher Lord in The Guardian. They come because the islanders believe an “old prophecy” that a saviour from far-off lands will one day arrive, “bringing the islands the prosperity they were denied by their former colonial rulers, Britain and France”.

“We have these crackpots showing up all the time,” says one local activist. Before his death this year, Frenchman Claude-Philippe Berger spent two decades styling himself as the “traditional king of Tanna”, an island of 30,000 people. He claimed he inherited his “title” from a Corsican gunmaker who led a failed uprising on Tanna in the 1970s, and swans about in a white tunic festooned with medals. Then there was the young Norwegian “dreamer” who arrived after reading about a village where Prince Philip was venerated as the incarnation of a mountain god. He burnt his clothes and passport on arrival, to show he would never leave – only to do exactly that after a row with the island’s chiefs. An American would-be king lugged strange gifts such as salad spinners and fishing tackle (for people who don’t fish) all the way from Boston.

Despite Vanuatu having gained independence in 1980 – thereby escaping its colonial masters – these pound-shop messiahs are still indulged by locals. Why? Partly because local chiefs use them to their advantage in island politics, and partly because some raise funds for communities frequently battered by cyclones. As for what motivates the would-be prophets, the answer is simple: a chance to go somewhere where “people will listen to them”.

Read the full article here.