I went back to Port Kaituma after living in Venezuela, just across the border, for more than twenty years. I wanted to visit Jonestown and see the new monument erected at the site by the Ministry of Tourism a few years back.
In Port Kaituma my friend Peter Jeffrey agreed to take me into Jonestown. Peter is a 67 year-old Amerindian who has spent most of his life in the North West district of Guyana. He is in perfect health; only his gray hair betrays his age. He was into agriculture and mining and, before that, in 1977 and 1978, ran a small shop a few miles from Jonestown.
When I first met him Peter told me an interesting Jonestown story. On the Monday before the mass murder-suicide, Peter hitched a ride on the Cudjoe, the Peoples Temple boat, to purchase supplies for his shop. In exchange for the ride he had to help load the boat. When the boat reached Kumaka, a town 72 miles up the Kaituma River where Peoples Temple maintained a store, he saw a white American woman crying in the arms of a man.
“I am not going back to America,” the woman was saying. “I prefer to die in Guyana.”
On Wednesday Peter traveled back to Port Kaituma on the Cudjoe. The American woman was also on the boat and on Saturday, along with 908 members of the Jonestown commune, she would swallow a cup of Flavor Aid laced with cyanide.
We left the crowded buildings of the town on a four wheel motor bike early in the morning. We passed a newly painted two storied concrete house on a corner. After this the houses were made of boards, some of them apparently abandoned, their gardens overtaken with weeds and bush. We came to a small hut with a metal bar across the road. A bored woman was sitting inside. A sign at the side of the hut read Welcome to Jonestown. The money was coming from the gold fields now but clearly Jonestown was the main attraction in Port Kaituma.
Khali remembers Jonestown
Before we went into Jonestown Peter wanted me to meet one of his friends. We stopped by the roadside and walked along a narrow path leading into the jungle. At a wooden gate overgrown with vines Peter shouted a few times.
A thin dark man came out of the bush and greeted us. He was barefooted and without shirt and had a small machete in his hand. He was rake thin but he had a handsome face with jet black hair on his head. A horrible burn mark covered his stomach. Both of his index and small fingers were missing. I wondered how he used the machete.
He lived in a disconsolate board hut built on stilts a few feet off the ground. Eggplants and oregano were in neat rows in front of the hut. A few overripe cucumbers lay on the ground.
His name was Khalicharand, or just Khali for short. He was a Hindu whose father or grandfather came from India to British Guiana to work the sugar cane plantations as indentured laborers, a euphemistic term used by the British for slaves.
In the mid-70s Khali sold boards, which he had ripped with a motor saw, to the early settlers. At first they paid him in cash. Then they began to barter: a whole crop of Khali’s watermelon was exchanged for a pig.
Khali remembered the names of some of the pioneers: Charlie, Joyce and Mike Touchette; Gene Chaiken and Pop Jackson and Mr. Muggs. He had never met Jim Jones personally, but every time he went into the compound he could hear Jones on the loud speaker reading the news.
One day Khali took his sick daughter to the Jonestown infirmary. The doctor and a nurse examined the sick child, who had a stomach complaint. The doctor ordered lunch for Khali. It was the first time he had seen a plate with “sections,” and Khali remembered the food served: Jell-O in one “section,” mashed potatoes in another and fried pork ribs in the other.
Khali had spoken well of the settlement and its pioneers. He would always be grateful to the doctor for attending to his sick daughter. Before we left I asked him about his impressions of Jonestown. And it seemed a different Khali, possessed now of a racial taint, who said: “Jonestown was a slave camp! All those black people in there were slaves!”
On our way out I asked Peter about Khali’s missing fingers and the scar on his groin. It seemed Kali had abandoned his farm and gone to another part of Guyana in 1980. He led a dissolute life. There was talk of drinks and scuffles. It explained his isolation now.
A yellow Caterpillar earthmover was doing maintenance on the mud road outside Khali’s farm and it was a smooth ride from here to Jonestown. A signboard on tall wood stilts spanned the entrance:
The People’s Temple
I had passed this entrance many times before but had never ventured inside. It always seemed a dark and forbidden place.
From here we had to hack our way up a trail overgrown with tangled vines, nettles and creepers. Peter cleared a path on the right and we came upon two vehicle transmissions with the tires still in place on the wheels. With Peter leading the way, making neat swipes with the sharp machete, we crossed the main trail and entered a dark forest. I almost collided with a huge metal frame with a steel drum on the side. On the base was a nameplate with the words, in raised letters, THE CINCINNATI MILLING MACHINE CO.
Presently we came to a turn with a sign on stilts. It held a map of the site map printed on a white canvas. The path led into a wide opening with the monument in the center surrounded by a field of bright yellow daisy flowers. The monument was made of concrete, a little above six feet, with a square of pale grey marble fixed to the lower half and inscribed with the following words:
In Memory of the victims of the Jonestown Tragedy
November 18, 1978
“This is the pavilion,” Peter said and left me to explore the place by myself.
I sat on the base of the monument with my back to the wall. Here the bodies – some embracing, infants underneath, as if everyone had decided to sleep out in the open – were exposed to the sun and rain for three days before they were placed in body bags by the American military and sent off to the United States.
A treasure and a freezer
Before I started on this journey I had seen aerial photographs of the community as it appeared in 1978. It was astonishing how much the early pioneers had achieved in four years. It took a tremendous amount of hard work to make the settlement the success it became. To begin with, they had to contend with a poor, thin top soil and a capricious climate. And for someone like Khali, who knew the difficulties of trying to tame this wild land, blacks toiling in the hot sun until evening could be considered slaves.
Dark clouds were banked up to the north of Jonestown and it began, slowly and quietly, to rain. I walked back to the site map and traced my fingers along the canvas until I came to where Jim Jones’ cottage was supposed to be. I turned left and walked among razor grass and nettles deeper into the jungle. Up ahead I heard heavy footsteps. I stopped and listened, alert. Whatever it was stopped, and after some seconds retreated. I had only the machete for defense. It would be foolish to go further.
It was raining when I returned to the pavilion. I followed the neat track Peter had made and found him at the edge of a deep pit. “Khali said they roasted meat here,” Peter said. The smoke house, I remembered from the site map. I told him about the footsteps. “Deer,” he said. “They come here now.”
At the back of this pit, a little way off, was another, same width and depth, but more like a canal, the bottom covered with brown leaves. It was the cooler cellar. It looked now like a dried-out creek. Peter told me that after the killings he had sneaked into the settlement. He was concerned about his free trips up the Kaituma River on the Cudjoe. He reached as far as the cellar. It had a wood frame and was covered with earth. Inside were metal drums and foodstuff and plantains and bananas left to ripe in boxes. After the frame disintegrated, Kaituma residents would speak of a tunnel leading to a treasure of American dollars and a rich underground gold mine where the settlers had been working secretly. With a deft movement, surprising for a 67-year-old man, Peter slipped into the pit and began clearing some leaves. The shell of a white freezer appeared. “And snakes, Peter?” I asked. He smiled and touched the machete in the scabbard at his side. I held out my right hand and pulled him up. “Let’s go. Too much rain,” he said.
I would have like to stay and sit outside the pavilion and watch the stars and listen as the Jonestown seniors recounted their earlier lives in America. But those people are dead and the jungle is swiftly advancing to reclaim the site. All that is left of Jim Jones’ Promised Land are the remnants of rusted machinery and a concrete monument with a few simple words inscribed on the plaque.
(Antony Arcusa was born in Guyana but has lived most of his adult life in Venezuela. He can be reached at: email@example.com.)