New Book Offers First Guyanese Perspectives on Jonestown Tragedy: A Review

Kway_0553801767_cvr_all_r1.inddA New Look at Jonestown: Dimensions from a Guyanese Perspective. Eusi Kwayana. Carib House, 2016. 258+x pages. $19.95.

The horrific events of November 18, 1978 – commonly referred to as “The Jonestown Massacre” – catapulted the little South American nation of Guyana from obscurity into notoriety. In a country that small – its population is less than 800,000 – where 918 people lost their lives, one would have expected the Guyana government to launch a thorough investigation. Instead, it chose to cover up the news for as long as possible, and created a commission of investigation only after a major public protest in its capital, Georgetown. One might also have expected to see a plethora of publications on the subject from Guyanese writers. Instead, the few Guyanese writings on the subject have been in the form of journal or newspaper articles.

Eusi Kwayana’s A New Look at Jonestown: Dimensions for a Guyanese Perspective is, almost forty years after the event, the first book by a Guyanese about the tragedy. As its author/compiler notes, the aim of the book is, inter alia, to show “why the government of Guyana and the People’s Temple chose each other. It offers Guyanese responses to the events which reached a bursting point on November 18, 1978” (p. 162).

It might be argued that no other Guyanese could bring the authority, knowledge and credibility of Eusi Kwayana. Now living in San Diego, this former Guyanese political activist is a veritable living monument, known to many Guyanese as “the sage of Buxton.” He was co-founder of the People’s Progressive Party, the nation’s first political party in the 1950s, and, being heavily involved in the fight for independence, was among those whom the British government placed in detention. He broke away from the PPP and joined another party in 1956, although he left that one too, disenchanted with the ethnic triumphalism and corruption that had elements of governance. His status in the Guyanese political scene has given him access to a vast array of equally influential figures, and he skillfully harnesses this unique asset.

The book’s 18 chapters provide us with interviews from survivors, as well as perspectives and reports from several prominent Guyanese, among them, Walter Rodney, Jan Carew, and Lennos Massay. One of the most influential vouchsafements of the book comes in its foreword, written by Jonestown survivor Laura Johnson Kohl, who admits to being “awestruck” after having read this comprehensive presentation of the Guyanese perspective.

This 258-page work underlines the conclusions of writings by almost all Jonestown survivors: that its leader Jim Jones used charisma at the beginning to attract followers, but that from the beginning, his move to Guyana was based on hoodwinking people. In Chapter Six, P. D. Sharma writes that he attended Jones’ inaugural address in 1973 at the Sacred Heart cathedral in Georgetown. As a witness to some of Jones healing “miracles” on that occasion, Sharma notes that the harmful material that was removed from one woman appeared to be chicken liver.

The story that emerges this collection of writings by Guyanese authors shows the Jonestown enterprise involving deception, collusion and corruption at the highest levels of the Guyana government. We learn that Peoples Temple was one of many communes that was supported by the plans of the government led by Prime Minister Forbes Burnham to settle the sparsely-populated hinterland. Kwayana provides an exhaustive history of the movements and people that were brought to Guyana – some from Africa, others from the United States – in order to find asylum from persecution and prosecution in their home countries. Some of these people were used by the government as thugs and enforcers.

Jim Jones’ relationship with the Guyana government was strange and secretive. In the 1970s, Guyanese citizens lived under severe austerity, and the Customs and Immigration departments restricted what could be brought in and out of Guyana. To thwart any possibility of armed rebellion, gun controls were extremely strict. The members of Peoples Temple, however, were allowed to enter and leave Guyana without Customs and Immigration inspections, and there seemed to be no gun control restrictions on the Temple whatsoever. As the book tells us, government personnel were instructed to not interfere in the commune’s business. As a result, Peoples Temple functioned as a state within a state. The Guyana government’s collusion is convincingly evidenced by an article that Kwayana reproduces from what he wrote a few days after the incident, in a special edition of Dayclean, a newspaper he had established. He drew attention to the answers of the government’s then-Minister of Information, Shirley Field Ridley, at a press conference: to the majority of questions, her responses were “I don’t know” or “I don’t have the details,” and claimed to be ignorant of Temple members entering and leaving the country without Customs inspections.

One of the most interesting discoveries in the book is to show how the commune was structured. As shown in the 1980 study by University of Guyana sociologists, Drs. Lear Matthews and George Danns (Chapter 7) – and contrary to the rosy picture presented to outsiders – Peoples Temple was not a model of cooperative socialism. Rather, it was run like a slave-plantation. Jim Jones was absolute master, with the majority of his followers being African Americans, who had little or no part in decision-making.

The collection of articles, interviews, and analyses provides far more information than its name suggests: it allows the reader a look into the corruption of the leadership of Guyana that made the Jonestown massacre possible.

(Dr. Khaleel Mohammed was a Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, where he specialized in Islam, Muslim and Jewish Dialogue, and Gender Issues. He was a native of Guyana. He died in January 2022. His articles for this site appear here.)