Imagine if, unbeknownst to you, some foreigners start a commune in your country, are gruesomely killed in historic numbers, and your country suddenly is internationally (in)famous, so much so that strangers you meet often identify your country only by its link to this event. This, to say the very least, would be upsetting and confusing to you.
Well, that’s the reality for many Guyanese and the legacy of Jonestown.
I only really learnt about Jonestown in the mid 90s when television started to become a widespread phenomenon in Guyana. The CBS docudrama Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones was replaying on cable, and it was the first time I, and many others, were exposed to the full extent of what had happened. The performance by Powers Boothe was so convincing, that to this day I equate him with the actual Jim Jones. But how is it that something so historic – the supposed “largest mass suicide” in modern history (which, for the record, I consider a mass killing) – was not taught in Guyanese schools or even common knowledge in the very country in which it occurred? Why did I have to first learn the details about this in an American TV show?
This lack of awareness continues even today. For large swaths of Guyanese, asking about Jonestown will only get you bewildered stares as many persons don’t even know of this occurrence. I asked my Facebook friends to recount the first time they remembered hearing about Jonestown, and for persons who weren’t alive during the event, they had first seen it on television or heard it mentioned by adults when they were younger. One person hadn’t even heard of it until they saw a TV show in their 20s, during the early 2000s.
The best explanation for this Guyanese amnesia that I can come up with intertwines two aspects of Guyanese history and mentality. The “Burnham Era,” or the years during which L.F.S Burnham was Prime Minister and President has come to be regarded as dark years in our country’s history. His socialist, then communist, agenda was heavy with dictatorial overtones that encouraged electoral fraud, overt racism, violence, and severe import restrictions that punished large segments of Guyanese society. This state of affairs was aided by complete control over all types of national media, with the result that most Guyanese were not even aware of the Jonestown tragedy, even when it first occurred and every other newspaper in the world was awash with headlines from my country. In fact, many Guyanese didn’t even know that Jonestown had existed in the first place, so it’s not surprising they didn’t know how it ended.
My father recalls that he first learnt about the events in the commune via radio broadcast from Venezuela, when there was still total silence on the Guyanese airwaves on the matter. This blackout followed by a state-controlled release of information initially was – and has continued to be – coupled with the common Guyanese perception that what happened was very “other”. It concerned the machinations of Burnham and Jim Jones, and involved mostly Americans, so it had nothing to do with Guyanese people. Many persons still think that no Guyanese persons were involved, or killed during the tragedy.
Alternately, for many Americans, and to a lesser extent other nationalities, Guyana remains almost synonymous with Jonestown. So pervasive is this thinking that, when a few years ago Guyana had the sad distinction of having the highest rates of suicide in the world, the international press was eager to include Jonestown in their coverage, despite the lack of any correlation between the epidemic and the events of 1978.
Guyanese continue to reject this placing of their identity as well as largely remain ignorant of its occurrence. I however think that there should be more emphasis on ensuring Guyanese know about Jonestown, because while we don’t “own” the events, the cautionary tales about cultism, conditions conducive to oppression and coercion, press suppression and lack of governmental transparency are vitally important lessons. As the sign in the Jonestown pavilion said: “Those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”