A Guyanese perspective of Jonestown, 1979

08b-06-jt5(This contemporary account of the deaths in Jonestown and their impact upon Guyana is excerpted from a larger work. Ms. Cox is the mother of Sharon Maas, whose two articles for this edition of the jonestown report are The White Night Is Over and Running Away.)

Jonestown was a Jekyll and Hyde settlement of 3000 acres in the jungle of Guyana bordering Venezuela. Only 150 miles from the capital of Georgetown, it is reached by a rough journey on a dilapidated steamer that hugs the coast and struggles valiantly against the turbulent Atlantic waters, or by an hour’s flight on a Twin Otter plane.

The only visitors allowed into Jonestown were Very Important People, local and foreign dignitaries. They had to pass the acid test – no criticism of Jones, no credence given to reports of a reign of terror, of unusual methods of disciplining people.

We in Guyana who did not visit the settlement were apt to picture it as a little piece of paradise in this sad world of ours. A weekly program over one radio station was sponsored by the Peoples Temple and set many a Guyanese visualizing a beautiful community with racial harmony, work-study programs, excellent medical care and a prosperous agricultural project.

Some of us had seen and admired the talent of the Jonestown young artists who participated in a cultural event at the largest auditorium in Georgetown. We marveled that such talent should hide itself away in the bush.

In 1978 a pamphlet appeared. It was styled “Jonestown: A Model of Cooperation”. On good quality paper the Peoples Temple described its objectives in setting up an Agricultural Project in Guyana in October 1974. It was –

    “To provide a community where new methods of food production and crops could be tried and made available to others in a developing country of Guyana, and eventually to offer medical and educational services to residents of the sparsely populated Northwest Region where the project is located.”

It gave a background to the Peoples Temple:

    “Bishop Jones, who struggled for 30 years in the United States for equal rights for the black and poor, founded the Peoples Temple on the model of Apostolic Christianity: an interracial, sharing community dedicated to work unceasingly against the evils of racism, hunger and injustice. First in the Midwest, then on the West Coast of the United States, the Temple provided a wide range of services for the elderly and destitute. The Peoples Temple in San Francisco and its thousands of members there and across the country are thrilled by the progress of Jonestown and are raising funds to assure the continuing expansion of this highly successful project.”

The pamphlet gave other descriptions of the work of the Temple. “Industry is everywhere.” Cottage industries, handcrafted toys, furniture, garments, beautiful baskets, colorful rugs. “Each article reflects a loving work of skilled hands in the peaceful and productive environment that only cooperative social organization can achieve.”

The language of the document was meant to appeal to all who cherished dreams of a world of brotherhood, peace and love. It was also meant to flatter the authorities. There was, for instance, reference to the

    “unique and important role that Guyana and her government have taken in the leadership of the developing nations of the world.”

There were predictions of changes and developments. Jonestown’s horizons, it said, “are the endless horizons of emerging Third-world people of Guyana, who are building a new life in this independent, socialistic country whose goals of ‘feeding, clothing and housing the people’ is so closely allied with the human service ideal that the Bishop Jim Jones has enacted for many years, and which he and his church have been able to realize more fully here in Guyana than was ever before possible.”

It seemed that Jones chose our multiracial and socialist Guyana because

    “The Third-world nation of Guyana has offered not only a beautiful natural environment for the Agricultural Project, but an opportunity for Temple members to put into practice cherished principles of racial and economic equality, human service and cooperative living.”

This is corroborated by another visitor who came to investigate the Peoples Temple. A freelance reporter, Kathy Hunter, wrote in her diary on May 17, 1978:

      “Love Guyana:

“The warmth, the laughter, the people. Their earthly humor matches the lushness of the gardens and the richness of their food. Have never known anything like it – no wonder Jim (Jones) chose this place for his Garden of Eden.”

Despite their very effective publicity campaign, there were some Guyanese who never forgot an incident on Sunday, December 29, 1974. It was shortly after the Peoples Temple gained admission to Guyana. The Rev. Jim Jones obtained permission to conduct a service on that day in the Sacred Heart Church on Main Street in Georgetown. The service ended with a faith healing ceremony. A Spokesman for the Catholic Church immediately announced that the service had caused the Church embarrassment since they were not aware that the service related to faith healing.

Jones, too, was embarrassed, for the alert Guyanese journalists and congregation had seen the faith healing cures as fakes. The Peoples Temple then assured the people of Guyana in a statement that:

      “The Peoples Temple in Guyana intends to be an agricultural mission. Our only interest is to produce food to help feed our hungry world in whatever way best suits the people of Guyana…

“If you don’t feel we can serve well or if you feel we can serve, just write to us and let us know or write to the government.

“We have no desire to leave this wonderful country but we have no desire to impose on your people.”

Despite all this talk of cooperation, the members of the Peoples Temple and the Guyanese citizens went their separate ways. There was little communication, except for the occasions when members of the Temple in groups of two or three went from door to door begging for their agricultural project. With millions of dollars at their disposal, they excelled at wringing money from the Guyanese whose people were then, and still are, in desperate financial circumstances.

We then saw them on Saturday afternoons shopping for vegetables at the outdoor Bourda market. Black and white young men and women in friendly conversation with each other but aloof to the rest of the world. We now know that orders had been given for them not to fraternize, that only the trusted few were allowed outside of the settlement.

For these reasons, when it became known that nine hundred of them had died at Jonestown, no Guyanese was seen to wipe away a tear. No Guyanese had lost a friend.

In some quarters there was positive dislike. A policeman and the North West region confided to one of the reporters who accompanied Congressman Ryan that “we hate these people.” And while on the radio program they boasted of the medical attention given to Amerindians in the North West region, farmers in the area reported that the Peoples Temple had assisted very few sick persons although the area is short of medical personnel.…

The Jonestown people were a favored group in Guyana. They enjoyed an ideal situation of freedom from harassment by Guyanese customs officers and officers of the law. Their children were tutored in Jonestown although the laws of Guyana do not permit private schooling and require all children of school age to attend the government schools in their area. Indeed, it was Utopia for Jim Jones. His dreams were to be shattered, but not by the Guyanese.