Another glance at the Jonestown Tragedy – by Francis Quamina Farrier

Another glance at the Jonestown Tragedy – by Francis Quamina Farrier

Francis Quamina Farrier

“Sure I know ’bout Jonestown. Everybody knows ’bout Jonestown”, the elderly African-American gentleman responded to me in a deep Southern accent, when I asked him what he knew about the tragedy which had occurred in Guyana some years previously.

That exchange took place between the gentleman and myself twenty years ago, while I was on a visit to Washington, DC, and on the pavement in front of the White House. But I’ve always remembered it, if only because of the way in which that stranger to me, was as warm as ever discussing that sordid topic, as though we had known each other for a very long time, and as though it was destiny for a cult which was against all what America stood for, ending in such a dramatic way.     

Jonestown was one of the worst Mass Murder/Suicide in modern World History, and it had occurred in what some Guyanese have referred to as, “A Republic within a Republic”, in Guyana on November 18, 1978, when 913 men, women and children, were murdered or committed suicide. It is something which has been a great embarrassment to Guyana, even though we were not in anyway directly involved.

The Jonestown tragedy still sends chills down one’s spine almost four decades later. Just a few days before it occurred, I was on holiday in New York during November 1978 when this mass murder/suicide unfolded in Guyana. A few days previously, I was at the JFK International Airport seeing a relative off on a Pan Am Airways flight to Guyana via Trinidad, when I observed a group of about fifteen persons making their way to the boarding gate of the flight.

One of them stood out from the rest in the group. He was obviously someone of importance, because from my perspective, I realized that he was a VIP, with members of the media going along with him. On inquiry, I found out that he was a United States Congressman, Leo Ryan, and I took it for granted that he was on his way to Trinidad and Tobago. But that was not so. The Congressman was actually on his way to Guyana to investigate rumours about questionable activities at the American People’s Temple Commune at Jonestown in the North-West Region of Guyana, just outside Port Kaituma. Also that some of the members wanted to leave, but were keep there against their will.

The presence of Congressman Leo Ryan, and his visit to Jonestown, via Port Kaituma, brought an end to The People’s Temple religious cult, and a tragedy unfathomable, prior to its happening. Leader of the group, Rev. Jim Jones, who was the main individual under the radar of the Congressman, ordered that his followers commit suicide by drinking a snide-laced kool aid, after having all the young children injected with the deadly poison.

Armed guards were posted to ensure that no one escaped. However a few did, by sneaking off into the near-by jungle, while the horror and confusion of the tragedy was unfolding. Meanwhile, some of the armed guards went after the Congressman and his team who had already left the commune for the Port Kaituma airstrip, where a Guyana Airways Twin Otter airplane was already there waiting to fly the congressman and his team back to Georgetown. Leo Ryan was bleeding from a wound which was inflicted on him by a woman of the People’s Temple cult, as he was leaving the commune to get to the Port Kaituma Airstrip. That was an indication of worse to come.

Before Congressman Leo Ryan and his entourage could have boarded the GAC aircraft, the People’s Temple guards arrived at the airstrip and opened fire, killing the Congressman and a number of others, including members of the NBC Television News Team; those who I had seen at the JFK Airport just a few days previously.

It was the biggest news story of the century, resulting in Journalists and Reporters from all around the world, descending on Guyana for a story full of intrigue and politics, as well as lots of blood and gore. The news coverage put Guyana under the international spotlight, since it was poblished in countries all around the world, but for the wrong reason.

The permission by the Guyana government at the time to grant that large plot of land to Jim Jones and The People’s Temple, has always been a controversial issue. At that time of the country’s history, Agriculture was of premier importance on the National Agenda. In applying to the Guyana Government for land to settle almost one thousand Americans, Jim Jones was readily accepted, saying that he planned to establish an Agricultural utopia in South America, since according to him, his ‘church’ was being  persecuted in the United States of America.

However, agriculture was not the only pursuit at Jonestown, according to some of the locals with whom I spoke some years later. Ships arrived at the tiny Port Kaituma from abroad. “They would always dock in the dark of night and off-load”, an elderly lady told me. “Strange-looking cargo, which the Customs never checked” she added. That lady was certainly no respecter of Jim Jones who headed the People’s Temple and admitted that she was suspicious of him all along. She even accused him of being a racist, “He never speak to we Black People here”, she said with indignation.

But that elderly Guyanese lady was not alone in the way many at Port Kaituma at the time, felt about Jim Jones and The people’s Temple. I was told that not only did ships arrive at Port kaituma under the cover of darkness, but there were the arrivals and departures of suspicious airplanes at the Port Kaituma airstrip. The flights were connected to the People’s Temple at Jonestown, I was informed.

It was a fact that the Jonestown Commune was very private to out-siders, and when there were any visitors, especially Government officials, every thing positive was put in place to make a good impression. The Cultural activities in particular were stunning. The commune abounded with talent. Music, Dancing, Singing, Acting – the works.

On one occasion, as the Director of Drama at the Department of Culture, I was involved with the production of a show at the National Cultural Centre, at which a few of the items were performed by very talented young members of the People’s Temple Culture Group. There was absolutely no indication for me to have suspected that those beautiful youngsters would have died is such a terrible way. They were all so vibrant and so talented as we discussed their contributions to the show.

What no one in Georgetown knew at the time, was that every member of the People’s Temple was tied down to return; for example, their passports were impounded by Jim Jones. There were always close family members who were kept back at Jonestown – a wife and husband were never permitted to leave together, and if they were, their child or children would be kept at Jonestown, to ensure that the parents would return.  But while all of this was going on, there were many Guyanese based away from Port Kaituma, who knew absolutely nothing about The People’s Temple Commune at Jonestown.

Celebrated Guyanese Jurist Sir Lionel Luckhoo, once the Mayor of Georgetown, admitted that he first heard of Jonestown and the massacre of the century, was when he received a phone call all the way from Australia, by someone seeking information from him. In other words, the news of that horrific event was already known half way around the world, even as most Guyanese knew nothing about it.

I first heard of that suicide/massacre while still in New York. What I first heard was that Guyana Defense Force Solders had attacked Venezuela. Then a few hours later, that it was a United States Congressman who was killed in the Guyana Jungle. Finally, when images and names unfolded on the American Television News broadcasts, I recalled the group which I had seen at the JFK International Airport making their way to the Pan Am Airlines flight, less than a week earlier. I was stunned.

On my flight back to Guyana three days later, I would venture to say that the packed flight had well over sixty percent of Media personnel on board. That developing story in Guyana was about to get FULL COVERAGE internationally. It was BREAKING NEWS by the hour.

During a recent visit to the United States a few weeks ago, and with plans to write this feature article, I did a survey to ascertain what percentage of Americans (at least those living in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington, DC) still remember or know about Jonestown and the People’s Temple Massacre which occurred almost four decades ago.

As would be expected, a very small percentage of those under thirty years of age knew anything about Jonestown. Almost ninety five percent of those fifty and over, with whom spoke, remembered the tragedy. “What do you remember about Jonestown?” was the question I posed; With an expression which reflected some disgust, “Poison”, was the only word I got in response from an elderly African-American lady. A white gentleman who told me that he is a pastor, spoke at length; “I can’t fathom how so many intelligent people were duped by that Jones guy”, he said, almost still trying to get an answer to his satisfaction, after all these years.

So what were the findings of the Guyana portion of my survey which I conducted during the past two weeks? The Jonestown tragedy is still well-known by Guyanese, including those who were born long after it had occurred. The most impressive was the response I received from a group of students of the St. George’s High School in Georgetown; almost all of them knew about the tragedy. There was also a one-word response almost similar to the one, “Poison”, which I got in the United States. That Guyanese one-word response was “massacre”.

The years have passed, and I am still investigating some puzzling aspects of the People’s Temple Jonestown tragedy. I’m told that there is much more to the story than is generally known so far. There are those who speak of a CIA element regarding the tragedy. There are also those who have expressed the view that Jim Jones was not one of the victims, and that he escaped to Brazil and later to Russia. There is also the theory that a small number of the children who died, were Guyanese who were adopted by the People’s Temple.

I’ve visited what remains of Jonestown on two occasions. On the first occasion I retrieved a base-ball glove; however, those in my visiting party made me do away with it, saying that it may cause our return flight to Ogle to crash. I also discovered that there are a few people at Port Kaituma who hold the strong belief that there are some ‘Jumbies’ from Jonestown who visit Port Kaituma from time to time and do some wicked things. The recent fire which destroyed four buildings at Port Kaituma last Monday, may  be attributed to jumbies from Jonestown.

However, as the elderly African American gentleman told me in his beautiful Southern accent at Washington, DC, some two decades ago, “Everybody knows ’bout Jonestown.” That seems to be slowly becoming not quite as accurate in the United States, as is the case in Guyana. And so the question returns; “Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.” That sign was posted at a strategic location at Jonestown while it functioned as The People’s Temple.

On November 18, 1978, when 913 men, women and children, were murdered or committed suicide

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  • guyaneseonline  On 11/28/2018 at 8:26 pm

    Subject: Return to Jonestown | Survivors revisit site 40 years after the tragedy …

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