Wantok Almanac: John Frum, Yasur, Toka and Tanna

 

Wantok Almanac is a collaboration between Wantok Musik’s David Bridie and The Footy Almanac’s Jarrod Landells. Both share an affinity with our Pacific neighbourhood and its stories, of which several on music, sport, culture and history will be published on The Footy Almanac.

 


 

John Frum may or may not have been a real living, breathing, marching in fatigues soldier during World War Two. He may have been a lone paratrooper, with skin of black or white, a victorious veteran of the Pacific theatre or a vanquished set of dog tags on a distant sandy shore…it is possible he wasn’t just a man, but many men or perhaps a god or on a mission from one.

 

John Frum is intriguing.

 

John Frum is a provider in many senses of the word.

 

The followers of John Frum live around the base of an imposing, gunmetal-hued pyroclastic cone of fire and fury know as Yasur.

 

 

Yasur getting vocal. [Phil Wales].

 

But more on that later…

 

The followers of John Frum continue to pay homage to a long departed icon even now, some 75 years after the war.

 

For all those years ago, thousands of troops from the USA and its allies made residence on many islands in Vanuatu (then known as the French-British condominium of the New Hebrides) in their tussle with the Japanese Naval forces. They brought ships and planes of significant size and number, with them bulk supplies of food, medical items, earth moving equipment, trucks and Coca Cola in trademarked glass bottles. While ashore, roads were paved, airstrips fashioned, hospitals raised…in tangible terms, the Ni-Vanuatu peoples (and other Wantoks across the region) had a lot of stuff dropped in their laps, out of the blue; sometimes literally when airdrops fell from that playground of the divine, the unexplored skies above.

 

When the need for bloodshed dried up, so too did the GIs and their accoutrements. In response, the John Frum Movement (one of the so-called ‘Cargo Cult’ phenomena of Melanesia) maintained a devotion to the outsiders, building their own versions of runways and comms towers to lure packed DC-2s back to Tanna. Wearing discarded military clothing while carrying makeshift bayonet adorned rifles and raising the stars and stripes add to the ceremonial vibe, like the vestments of Catholic priests and call to prayer from Islamic minarets.

 

 

John Frum Movement parade with wooden rifles during annual celebrations, Sulphur Bay, Tanna [Ben Bohane].

 

John Frum Movement members with USA written in red paint on their backs, pay homage before the American flag during annual celebrations, Sulphur Bay, Tanna [Ben Bohane].

 

 

John Frum Movement ceremony with American flag flying, Sulphur Bay, Tanna [Ben Bohane].

 

And they play some incredible music.

 

 

 

Despite the ‘Cargo Cult’ tag, the relationship between John Frum Movement and the eponymous American is far from a simplistic ‘developed v developing’ narrative. To John Frum followers, he is far more than some interloper colonial – the strengthening of traditional kastom values and practices like kava (a far more interesting process in Tanna compared to other parts of the Pacific…) is also a promise of John Frum to these followers whose ancestral way of life was already compromised by settler governments and missionaries, significantly those of Presbyterian faith; their more conservative values didn’t allow for wriggle room in the convergence between kastom and a ubiquitous and universal Christianity.

 

John Frum’s advice extended to casting off the trinkets brought by the French and British such as money and clothing and cast them into the briny depths of the ocean, as a path to rediscovering the lost or banned methods of kastom. At times, the flag raised in the morning is not that of the USA, but sometimes France (depending on where you go in Vanuatu, the language, religion and school systems reflect more of the UK or France – John Frum followers have a higher regard for the lived experience of French-style colonialism it seems) or even the Aboriginal Flag of Australia, in deference to the shared struggles for racial equality.

 

John may have been “from” Main Street USA, but he certainly wasn’t of there…

 

On the opposing western coastal fringe of Tanna, an entirely different ceremony has taken place in recent weeks.

 

 

Dancing women at Nekowiar, Tanna [Arlene Bax].

 

Where John Frum has a day-to-day, devoted and driven core of adherents, Toka (or Nekowiar) happens but once every five to eight years.

 

But what a worthwhile wait it is.

 

People from all over Tanna, hailing from each of the twelve Nakamals (commonly known today as a place to drink kava and to storian, Nakamals have always been meeting grounds of Chiefs) find out mere days before the festival is about to take place. They converge on land not far from the towns of Isangel and Lenakel to begin many hours of dancing and singing in riotous colour over a four day period.

 

 

Youth wearing kastom feather and facepaint for Toka [Gaga Gaelle].

 

An inquisitive girl taking part in Nekowiar [Arlene Bax].

 

Men dancing at Toka [Gaga Gaelle].

 

The search for a potential spouse forms part of the gathering for single adults, dispute resolution and strengthening of kastom another.

 

In choosing the right person to marry (and generally produce children with) the importance of finding someone outside of your local family group is regarded as paramount; with thousands of people travelling hours to meet with every other tribe and group of the island coming together, this requirement is far easier to fulfil at Nekowiar.

 

Pigs play a huge role in cultural life all across the islands of Vanuatu – boys become men if they kill a pig with tusks, the family of a betrothed man must pem braed praes (gift a dowry) to the woman’s family made up mostly of pigs and woven pandanus mats. However, should a couple find one another at the festival, the significant burden of braed praes is waved.

 

If arguments had fomented in the past, or transgression large or small had been acted upon others, the close of Nekowiar brings a symbolic clearance of sins and troubles with the slaughter of pigs; their blood a solvent for any issue.

 

A part of socio-cultural life in Tanna for centuries, this festival ran afoul of the moral compass of European settlers – the combination of women dancing with exposed breasts and periodic promiscuity (which was not promoted, rather condoned on the proviso that such behaviour would be cleansed by the blood of pigs) was a bridge too far for concerned colonials.

 

Rightly or wrongly, Man Tanna are widely regarded as tough, uncompromising and always up for a fight by people in the other islands…the Tannaese are also considered exceptionally hard workers, excellent horse wranglers and solid guardians of Ni-Vanuatu kastom. Through the newer tradition of John Frum and the historic of Toka/Nekowiar, Tanna culture will remain strong, unique and resilient.

 

 

Yasur from the crater rim [Phil Wales].

 

You have to have some sort of resilience to be within cooee of an active volcano, though that is exactly what many do in Tanna – and not just John Frum Movement members. The film Tanna was an Academy Award nominee in 2017 and tells a dramatised version of the true story of star-crossed lovers who live close to Yasur. Filmed in 2015 as a dual Australia-Vanuatu production and directed by Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, Tanna features the Yakel as one such people, but many others live to this day close to the crater at places like Sulphur Bay and Port Resolution.

 

 

Jarrod and friends trek past Yasur on the way to Lamakara Village, Sulphur Bay, Tanna [Billy Carman].

 

Youth watching Independence Day sporting carnival at Lamakara Village, Sulphur Bay, Tanna [Billy Carman].

 

From the peak of Yasur, it is possible to see Aniwa on a clear day. Part of the southernmost Tafea province of Vanuatu alongside Futuna, these two small islands are dwarfed by Tanna (the 6th largest and 3rd most populous island of the country). The languages and history of Aniwa and Futuna are fascinating, as both are considered ‘Polynesian Outliers’, that is to say, the local peoples made connection with people from far across the Pacific Ocean in places like Samoa, Tonga or Hawaii in the past, which helped shape their cultures and societies more-so than the usual Melanesian links. This is similar to the way in which traditional Madagascar cultures are closer to historical Javanese than those of southern Africa.

 

Aniwa and Futuna are not alone within Vanuatu as Polynesian outliers, nor are they alone in Melanesia – for instance the Solomon Islands are home to two of their own in Mugava (Rennell) and Mungiki (Bellona).

 

 

 

 

Find more Wantok Almanac stories HERE and Wantok Musik HERE

 

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About

A classic jack of all trades & master of a couple, Jarrod started his footy career as a gangly ruck after a growth spurt catapulted him to the lofty heights of 177cm as a 12-year-old. Forward pocket off the bench was where he ended up as he topped out at 178cm eight years later. The trajectory of a career in health fortunately didn't peak during the pre-teen years & a keen interest in footy has turned from playing to coaching, volunteering and writing.

Comments

  1. Jarrod / David
    Thanks for this. This fabulous series is really giving me an education.
    Those colours – amazing.

  2. G’day Smokie, thanks for your support as always.

    A truly wonderful place, I’d go back in a heartbeat. Yasur is a belching, snarling and ever active presence and the people there are incredible characters too.

  3. Luke Reynolds says

    I’m with Smokie, the colours and photos are incredible.

    Such a different culture and way of life. Absolutely fascinating the different origins and groups of the people.

    The festival sounds lots of fun!

  4. I’m actually spewing I missed it Luke, it happened a week or so ago – luckily a few of my mates who live in Vanuatu were able to fly down for it. I might not get to see it for another eight years!

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