Pieces of Jonestown

Jonestown, July 2010
Photo by Aaron Oldenburg

I have had an obsession with physical, but often seemingly empty spaces with powerful histories. On an earlier visit to the Branch Davidian compound outside of Waco, Texas, I wondered how I could convey its essence now, the life and ghosts I felt there. They are feelings particular to historical places without official landmarks or agreed-upon ways of visiting and looking at them. I had an early interest in the multiple contradictory facets of the Peoples Temple story, the noble purpose of Jonestown eclipsed by the insanity of its end. As I am also fascinated by the blending of Western and traditional culture in parts of the developing world, it made sense to focus my research on the stories of Guyanese people who are actively participating in the living history of the place.

My project was to involve visiting the small towns around Jonestown, Guyana, and to interview residents about their memories of the community and how it affected their lives. The focus is on how the tragedy became a part of its surrounding environment, both culturally, through stories, and materially, through objects from Jonestown that were appropriated throughout the area. It is also a portrait of Peoples Temple from the perspective of their Guyanese neighbors. We know that they sold their crafts at local markets and competed in basketball tournaments in Georgetown. We rarely hear, though, the accounts of outsiders who were most geographically close.

I arrived in Georgetown in early June of this year, then took a plane to Port Kaituma, which is a few miles from Jonestown. I spent two weeks there, visiting surrounding towns such as Matthews Ridge and Five Star – as well as the remnants of Jonestown itself – getting to know people and gathering interviews.

I learned that some younger Guyanese have an interest in what happened, in contrast to the shame felt by many of their parents’ generation. Many are upset at what became of the remains of Jonestown, the fact that it was redistributed and looted, and not preserved for people to see. After the deaths, the government had collected items like mattresses, some of which it distributed to local schools, and others it sold. A bulldozer from the commune sits rusting in the near-ghost town of Matthews Ridge to the south. Many items were pillaged and some, like giant tubs of margarine, were left to rot. The pigs that had been raised by the Peoples Temple became wild and were later hunted in the jungle.

I encouraged people to talk about the objects they had taken from Jonestown. My driver to Jonestown, Angie, who had been three years old at the time of the massacre, said that he and his mother had a collection of plates from there which they display in their homes. Some told me about books for natural remedies that they still used for things like gastrointestinal problems, how Peoples Temple had introduced them to African healing methods that they still use today.

Recently, American entrepreneurs stopped by, scouting the area for a resort. Recognizing the tourism opportunity – and as reported in The New York Times – the Guyanese government assisted the Beacon Guesthouse in Port Kaituma in adding two new buildings to accommodate more guests. It does not appear to attract many tourists at the moment, but the hotel is fully-booked with migrant gold miners. Townspeople do remember the few people who take an interest in visiting Jonestown. I often heard stories of a couple of men from Norway who visited, and another group who came to test Jonestown for uranium. The latter stoked the old rumor about disappearing cement being used to build underground tunnels. The rumors once spoke of how the tunnels allowed for Jim Jones to escape; now the tunnels reportedly store uranium as well.

I was also interested in impressions people received from their regular interactions with specific Peoples Temple members. Michael Hope from Mabaruma spoke about one woman he had met, an American Indian whose degree in agriculture had been financed by the Peoples Temple. It was a rare treat, he said, to be able to talk to someone from Jonestown privately, as there was always someone else from the agricultural project creeping in to overhear what was being said. Pops, an elderly man who sold homemade flyswatters, and two women who often came to town to sell electronics for radio communication – which were forbidden in Jonestown – came up often in conversation. Benjamin Jupiter, an Amerindian who had been about seven years old at the time, went to school in Jonestown with Peoples Temple children. He remembered times when he had to wear sound mufflers over his ears so he could not hear what was being told the other children. This would be after something unexplained had happened, such as the sound of gunshots and children being told to lay on the ground. I later found out that he had also witnessed a girl who’d been punished by being left in a hole out in the sun for a day, but he had not mentioned that to me.

Wilfred Jupiter, Benjamin’s father, was the most difficult to find, as I trailed his grandson under bushes through the jungle. I spoke with this 75-year-old man who had led the team that cleared the land for Jonestown. He was still at it. The felled trees around him when I found him were ones he had chopped down single-handedly.

I had the good luck to stay at Beacon Guesthouse and meet the manager, Carlton Daniels, who is an excellent source of history and introduced me to the Jupiters. He was very busy, though, and we had to conduct our interview at night when the entire town erupts in blaring music from all directions. Every other house, it seems, has a set of six foot tall speakers. I had met some Peace Corps Volunteers in Georgetown who said Port Kaituma felt like the kind of place where anything could happen and no one would bat an eye. The sensational Guyanese newspapers helped over-prepare me psychologically as well, with stories of groups of men armed with machine guns using sledgehammers to break in the walls of people’s cement homes. On my first day I was followed by a crazy man who repeatedly told me that someone already had a copy of the key to my guesthouse room, that people would break in and there was nothing I could do about it. They would kill me with “gay sex.”

I did not end up with as many recorded interviews as I had hoped, but I did manage to meet and talk to several other people. Peoples Temple members worked at Kaituma hospital, so I tried to find someone there who had been working at the time. A man named Fordyce, who had been a mechanic and driver for the hospital, had also worked on the boat that supplied cement to Jonestown during his time in the military. He shared the general hypothesis as to why so much cement had been delivered to Jonestown and no one ever saw anything built with it. I also located a man named Mortimer Cansenaly who had worked in the local government at the time and had been flown to Georgetown to give his version of events, but he told me he did not know enough to be worth my time (or his, I suppose). I also tried to interview a man named Fritz Duke, whose father was murdered while trying to exchange gold he had discovered at Jonestown, but he declined for understandable reasons. I had considered going to Matthews Ridge to photograph the rotting bulldozer left over from Jonestown, but based on my experience getting stranded while visiting Mabaruma (which is a deceptively short speedboat ride away), I figured that if I tried to do a day trip to this place, I would probably miss my flight.

Although wandering around Port Kaituma and finding people who look old enough to remember Jonestown uncovers many who do not want to discuss the past, there are a few established sources who are willing and knowledgeable, who can give new details as to life with Peoples Temple as neighbors. There are also plenty of young people who, although most of their information comes from the same news sources as ours, are willing to discuss what it means to be geographically defined by another nation’s tragedy.

(Aaron Oldenburg can be reached at aoldenburg@ubalt.edu. Mr. Oldenburg also took the photographs of the area around Jonestown and the Kaituma River from above. His short video showing Jonestown as it appears today – including footage of a tire from old construction equipment about 90 seconds in (and again at 2:15) – appears here.)