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Villagers on the island of Tanna dance in John Frum's honor each February 15. Clan leaders first saw their Yankee Messiah in the late 1930s. He later appeared to them during WWII, dressed in white like the unidentified navy seaman. (Paul Raffaele)

In John They Trust

South Pacific villagers worship a mysterious American they call John Frum - believing he'll one day shower their remote island with riches

“If he’s an American, why does he live in your volcano?” I wonder aloud.

“Ask Chief Isaac,” he says. “He knows everything.”

Dotting the dirt road are small villages where women with curly, bubble-shaped hair squat over bundles of mud-coated roots called kava, a species of pepper plant and a middling narcotic that is the South Pacific’s traditional drug of choice. Connoisseurs say that Tanna’s kava is the strongest of all. Jessel buys a bundle of roots for 500 vatu, about $5. “We’ll drink it tonight,” he says with a grin.

For as long as Tanna’s inhabitants can remember, island men have downed kava at sunset each day in a place off-limits to women. Christian missionaries, mostly Presbyterians from Scotland, put a temporary stop to the practice in the early 20th century, also banning other traditional practices, or “kastom,” that locals had followed faithfully for millennia: dancing, penis wrapping and polygamy. The missionaries also forbade working and amusement on Sundays, swearing and adultery. In the absence of a strong colonial administrative presence, they set up their own courts to punish miscreants, sentencing them to forced labor. The Tannese seethed under the missionaries’ rules for three decades. Then, John Frum appeared.

The road drops steeply through more steamy jungle to the shoreline, around the point from Yasur, where I will stay in a hut on the beach. As the sun sets beyond the rain-forest- covered mountains that form Tanna’s spine, Jessel’s brother, Daniel Yamyam, arrives to fetch me. He has the soft-focus eyes and nearly toothless smile of a kava devotee. Daniel was once a member of Vanuatu’s Parliament in Port-Vila, and his constituents included John Frum followers from what was then the movement’s stronghold, Ipikil, on Sulphur Bay. “I’m now a Christian, but like most people on Tanna, I still have John Frum in my heart,” he says. “If we keep praying to John, he’ll come back with plenty of cargo.”

Daniel leads me to his village nakamal, the open ground where the men drink kava. Two young boys bend over the kava roots Jessel had purchased, chewing chunks of them into a stringy pulp. “Only circumcised boys who’ve never touched a girl’s body can make kava,” Daniel tells me. “That ensures that their hands are not dirty.”

Other boys mix water with the pulp and twist the mixture through a cloth, producing a dirty-looking liquid. Daniel hands me a half-coconut shell filled to the brim. “Drink it in one go,” he whispers. It tastes vile, like muddy water. Moments later my mouth and tongue turn numb.

The men split into small groups or sit by themselves, crouching in the darkness, whispering to each other or lost in thought. I toss back a second shell of the muddy mix, and my head tugs at its mooring, seeking to drift away into the night.

Yasur rumbles like distant thunder, a couple of miles over the ridge, and through the trees I glimpse an eerie red glow at its cone. In 1774, Capt. James Cook was lured ashore by that same glow. He was the first European to see the volcano, but local leaders banned him from climbing to the cone because it was taboo. Daniel assures me the taboo is no longer enforced. “Go with Chief Isaac,” he advises. “You can ask him tomorrow.”

After I drink my third shell of kava, Daniel peers into my undoubtedly glazed eyes. “I’d better take you back,” he says. By the seaside at my hut, I dance unsteadily to the rhythm of the waves as I try to pluck the shimmering moon from the sky and kiss it.

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