On November 18, 1978, over 900 members of the Peoples Temple, located not far from the Port Kaituma Airstrip, died after drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid. Their suicidal act was attributed to a directive from Reverend Jim Jones, the religious leader of the commune. Jones himself died from gunshot wounds. Despite the publication of seven books by Jonestown survivors about the incident, many questions remain, including the circumstances surrounding the establishment of the commune and the death of American Congressman Leo Ryan, who went to Guyana to investigate reports of atrocities associated with the Temple. This tragedy has long been dismissed as an American tragedy. Perhaps this was so because Guyana’s Prime Minister Burnham declared the Jonestown Massacre “an American problem”.
A recent publication, A New Look at Jonestown, by elder statesman Eusi Kwayana offers a fresh look at the mass suicide. Not surprisingly, Kwayana, a political activist, offers a Guyanese perspective of the tragedy. Interest is generated from reading the first chapter of the 258-page book, as Kwayana interviews three survivors of Jones’ Temple, one of whom wrote the foreword to the book, Laura Johnston Kohn. Kohn says she was “awestruck” with Kwayana’s description of the Jonestown event. The rest of the book incorporates excerpts from the writings of several Guyanese, including George Danns, Walter Rodney and Jan Carew, culminating in an analysis by Kwayana.
What makes Kwayana’s narrative worth reading is his deliberate examination of a “tragedy in Guyana” as a “Guyanese tragedy”, while still reminding us that the tragedy involved primarily victims from the US. One scholarly excerpt comes from the work Guyanese sociologists George Danns and Lear Matthews, who consider Jones’ commune as a “community-inspired self-reliance” effort coinciding with Burnham’s cooperative socialism. The authors point to the fact that Jonestown was part and parcel of Burnham’s development plans, made possible by an offer of “resources and encouragement for hinterland development” and his policy of encouraging “foreigners to settle in the interior”.
Kwayana dug deep to identify the role played by Guyanese in this tragedy. A defining theme of the book is that the tragedy had strong resemblance to other international and national events in world history. While Danns and Matthews identify the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project as an outgrowth of Burnhamism, readers are left to wonder if Jones’ commune was simply a cult or an experiment that offers broader historical lessons. The book makes the point that the commune was a reflection of a master/slave plantation society reflective of the type found in the American south. It considers the role of religion as central to indoctrination and social control of the labour population.
Kwayana made reference to a speech by Walter Rodney who essentially makes the argument that the Jim Jones affair remained a secretive one, with no official inquiry into the mass suicide by Burnham. It was yet another dark stain on the image of the Kabaka. In a reproduced 1978 Dayclean article, Kwayana forcefully argues that the Peoples Temple was actually a “state within a state” (a term that may have been used by top ranks in the Burnham regime), given the extent to which the Burnham regime was involved, and the level of secrecy associated with its creation. Kwayana reminded us of some simple facts that we may have taken for granted: Jim Jones “was in full control of truth and “he embodied the media…”. This was eerily the simplicity with which the Burnham regime governed Guyana, particularly during the late 1970s, ironically, a time when Kwayana’s opposition to Burnham was strongest. He reminds us of the contempt Burnham had for the Guyanese people – at the time when Guyanese faced import bans on many essential items, the settlers at Jonestown were exempt from the country’s customs and immigration regulations. Not surprisingly, the District Commissioner in-charge of the region had little or no oversight over the Jonestown settlement.
Now domiciled in California, the area from which most of Jones’s innocent victims originated, Kwayana found time to meet with survivors of the Peoples Temple. His book offers some new insights into a national tragedy that claimed Guyana as an international pariah state. Not embedded in pretensions, or utopian theoretical approach, A New Look at Jonestown is well worth reading, not because it was written by a politically/socially conscious Guyanese activist, but because of what it has to offer in our greater understanding of what essentially was a Guyanese tragedy. (Send comments to BRamharack60@gmail.com)