A Permanent Loss of Respect

This reference to Jonestown inspires memories of a recent, related encounter of mine. In July 2017 I met with a white British/Australian Athletic Coach at the Commonwealth Games that were held in the Bahamas. I was part of the Media team as a Reporter/Photojournalist, and was doing the photo and written coverage for Team Guyana. I also extended some photo services to Team Jamaica and India, so my time was spent at trackside and ringside in the boxing gym.

While waiting between races at by the finish line at track side where much of the Press usually gather, I engaged in a discussion with the British/Australian Coach on matters of indiscipline that I had witnessed among athletes and officials, from England and Australia in particular. By standard rules of protocol, everyone on site was expected to stand in symbolic reverence or respect, while nationals from those respective countries showed contempt even for their own anthem and an affront to that of others.

They chose instead, to shuffle around, and moved aimlessly, having no hands to their sides, just as if oblivious to the rules or the requests that are blared out on the stadium P. A. System. While I was standing at attention once, facing two female track coaches from England, with official I.D. tags like mine, I noticed they seemed too careless. It was in relation to all of these encounters that I felt quite justified in expressing my defiant inclination and in questioning the reasons for the noted indiscipline, when all other nationals do confirm. He admitted to being aware of the lack of appreciation for civic discipline as a national issue.

When I told the coach that I was from Guyana and asked whether he knew of such a place, he readily made reference to the Jonestown massacre of November 1978. It was clear that he knew nothing else of such a country. This is awfully irritating that Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America with its long British rule until May 26th, 1966, had such a horrible act as its only reputation. Yet, here he was, a born British man knowing nothing more of it, other than about the American fanatic, Jim Jones, and his “death cult” with the 909 members who were deliberately killed by injection, or forced to drink Kool-Aid laced chloride [potassium] cyanide just in a so-called “White Night” death ritual.

So there it is: 38 years after they assassinated Congressman Leo J. Ryan at the Port Kaituma airstrip in North West Guyana that sparked off the apocalyptic end of a cult, the ugly aftermath continues to haunt Guyana and the innocence of Guyanese people at home, in their vast diaspora and even at a stadium during an international sports. Such encounters certainly do not help to promote any positive image of Guyana.  Unwittingly instead, over the ensuing years, it has plastered repeated coats of obscene burden upon its nationals, to the extent that it even overshadows whatever merits that ought to be afforded the athletes such as the Silver Medalist or the impressive female track performances, or all other areas of growth and academic prowess.

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At the time of the Jonestown massacre, I was a young art student and was following it closely. I was somewhat psychologically disturbed by the many deaths, the likes of which no one in Guyana or the region had ever heard. I found it to be incomprehensible and at the time had never had much contact with much Americans.

As such, then, I had a strange fascination about them and with this sort of mass slaughter of human life. But I was psychologically confused. It became difficult for me to conceive that what seemed to me as a too casual and reckless disregard for the sanctity of human life by a people whom I had once revered for their prowess and seemingly surpassing blessings in their competitive effort in sports, technology and other world affairs. In my state of shock, mingled with great disappointment, I found it difficult to conceive and to reconcile what I thought of Americans and that which I saw daily from the many newspaper clippings that I had embarked upon collecting with a gruesome fascination. I recall the shifting body count with each succeeding revelation of more being found by the Guyana Police and Guyanese Defence Force soldiers.

In the aftermath too, my opinion of Americans had changed forever, for I became disappointed by their misconduct, especially the many killings in a country that had only known of an “Indo-Afro” race war in 1964 when I was a little Sunday School boy. I hadn’t seen those deaths, and was unprepared to understand, went on for some months but were never en masse. I was obsessed by the tragedy of Jonestown and as a tertiary level art student with peculiar taste and habits, I had had even done a Surrealistic oil painting on the Jonestown massacre that I titled “The Aftermath.” It was morbid in subject and colour scheme, it featured human skulls dripping blood, hanging in mid-air amid a seemingly endless dreamscape background. Others were seen stuck in bloody swamps with rotting tree stumps. It was my symbolic depiction of the annihilation of all human life. Years later, I painted over it with another subject, for it was too haunting and difficult to live with.

The Jonestown massacre stands out as my most shocking encounter, although I did not actually witness the bodies, except one of the abandoned aluminium coffins in the City cemetery. I had gone there to do some strange landscape drawing with graves as part of the subject matter. I had recognized the coffin as being similar to those I had become accustomed seeing in the daily newspaper. I had read that they were the temporary method of transport for the bodies that the Americans flew them out of Jonestown to the only facility large enough to accept them at Dover, Delaware. Autopsies were not possible due to rapid decomposition, but they went there for fingerprinting and then processed for burial.

My opinion of Americans changed forever 38 years ago and has even been reinforced by their own actions, such as the racial animosity as is evident by the reckless police killings, framing of the innocent and the unnecessary harassment of African-Americans in the streets and the prisons. So too the actions and condoned presence of the Ku-Klux-Klan as a “necessary evil” in the name of reckless “freedom of expression,” has done very little to redeem my shattered esteem in which I once held all Americans. Since the Jonestown massacre, the seemingly-impaired image of Americans continued and seems to me as being largely self-inflicted. I thought of the blessing of knowledge being constantly haunted by curse when the sanctity of human life becomes debased.