Twenty-five years after: A visitor to Jonestown looks back

Today marks a quarter of a century since the Jonestown tragedy made international headlines.

On November 18, 1978, some 911 people died in a mass suicide/murder at the People’s Temple in Port Kaituma. The tragedy appeared to have been triggered by a visit by Leo Ryan, a US Congressman, who was conducting a personal inspection to ascertain whether Jonestown was being run like a concentration camp and people were being held there against their will.

According to reports, about 16 Temple members decided that they wanted to leave Jonestown with Ryan and his team. They were allowed to go, but while at the Port Kaituma airstrip, Jonestown security guards arrived and started shooting. Congressman Ryan and four others were killed; three were members of the press; the other was a person from Jonestown who wanted to leave. 11 were wounded. Some hours later, the population of Jonestown – some 638 adults and 276 children – lay dead. Most appear to have committed suicide by drinking a drink laced with cyanide and a number of sedatives; other victims appeared to have been murdered by poison injection and some had been shot.

I first visited the People’s Temple along with some senior Region One (Barima/Waini) government officials during the early months of 1978.

At the time of the visit, I felt privileged to have gained entry to the American community in Guyana’s forest. We drove in Land Rovers to the entrance of the People’s Temple. The entry point was some six miles along the road from Port Kaituma, but the community itself was about a mile or more inland.

We had to disembark at the guard hut, where there was a guard armed with a shotgun. We were greeted by one of Jim Jones’ adopted children who drove a tractor.

I think he was called Johnny Jones. He first radioed to someone at the base then he invited us to board the tractor trailer. Leaving the Land Rovers behind, we headed into the base driven by Johnny Jones, who was also armed.

Along the way, I noted fields of thriving cassava. Interspersed in the cassava fields were a number of banana or plantain trees as well as young mango and orange trees. There was also a fruit orchard. A few young people, who were working, appeared to have been resting in shady areas. The fields were clear of weeds.

At the People’s Temple, Reverend James Warren ‘Jim’ Jones, wearing his customary dark glasses, greeted us briefly. We were also introduced to his wife and a number of persons who were among the administrators of the community.

A guided tour followed in which we visited one of the sleeping quarters and the communications centre. They were in touch with Georgetown, the United States and the wider world. It was impressive. We visited the health centre, which was equipped to deal with minor surgeries. Though malaria was prevalent in the area at the time, no one at the People’s Temple was ever severely affected.

We visited the school and were told that the children learnt several languages including Swahili, the language of the East Africans. I had a brief conversation with one of them in that language. Mathematics and the sciences were emphasised and in their social studies programme they were being taught to love Guyana as their motherland.

We had a meal in the auditorium/pavilion, as it was called, where everyone gathered for sermons, meetings and cultural presentations. I cannot recall everything that we ate, but part of the meal was a tasty biscuit made from cassava flour.

A cultural show was held in our honour in the afternoon. The commune’s band played tunes of the day with the lyrics slightly modified to reflect the ideology of the People’s Temple, which was one of a people living together in unity for a common cause.

We left the People’s Temple just as darkness was creeping in.

It was an impressionable visit, but I remembered asking the then regional minister, Fitz Carmichael if the People’s Temple wasn’t a state within a state.

I never got a response from him. I had the distinct impression that he did not want to say anything about the community. I never asked why.

Subsequently, I met several of the members of the Temple at Port Kaituma or at Mabaruma and even at the then head office of the Guyana Airways Corporation in Main Street, Georgetown. They were always cordial. Because they were moving towards becoming a self-sufficient and self-reliant community, making their own soaps, perfumes, agricultural tools among other things I began to respect their work and became less suspicious of them. They had a boutique at Mabaruma.

Then came the shocking news of a mass suicide at the People’s Temple and murders of Congressman Ryan and others. I returned to Jonestown almost one year later. But on this occasion there was no security and the loam road to the site had deteriorated badly.

Most of the houses had been vandalised. We did not go into the buildings but the little we saw of the health centre was that it was completely ransacked. Some people at Port Kaituma and Matthew’s Ridge told me that they had been able to secure beds, pots and pans, clothing and the latest footwear at the time; items which were apparently taken from Jonestown.

The galvanized container (resembling a big tub) that had held the cyanide-laced drink was still there and there were scores of plastic cups around.

The system of boardwalk which linked the various buildings together, looked as clean as it had when we first visited, probably cleansed by the rain and dried by the sun. However, in various places, young trees were growing in spaces between the boards. A number of fruit trees blossomed and parrots and other birds kept up a racket in the distance. Shrubs and weeds overran the previously well-kept fields. We did not hang around.

In the aftermath of the mass suicide/murder many people in the North West, to whom the People’s Temple was a mystery, felt that it was best that it be forgotten.

However, others like myself who had visited it believe that it should have been preserved.

Today just a track exists and anyone wanting to go there has to walk. There is no signboard and without a guide it would be hard to find.

Region One Chairman, Norman Whittaker, who as a teacher had taken a dozen students from the North West Secondary School to spend five nights at the People’s Temple along with an Australian Nun, Sister Justin, feels that it should be reconstructed as part of the country’s heritage and be taught as a lesson in history. He feels that as a tourist attraction it could create employment and aid in the development of the country.

Whittaker recalled being escorted around at all times and not being allowed to wander off. At that time he thought it was out of politeness. Later, he said, he realized that he was probably being kept away from no entry areas.

The popular view held by many including former Guyana scholar, Roger Arjoon; bookseller, Ovid Holder, and Whittaker, is that the site should be opened up to a private investor to manage as a tourist attraction.

However, there appears there would be legal setbacks to achieving this. Stabroek News was told that the land had been leased to the People’s Temple for 99 years.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Stabroek News, Guyana
Nov. 18, 2004
Miranda La Rose

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday November 18, 2004.
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