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Jonestown 30years later – what about Guyanese people?

Last evening, at 9pm EST, CNN showed a documentary that was hosted and presented by Soledad O’Brien, who did Black in America, on the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. Many of us would recall the effect and impact of this event on the Guyanese national consciousness.
Prior to Jonestown, Guyana’s impact on the world’s stage was restricted to vague references such as the Dryfus Affair, the 1963-64 race riots, and a few notable personages, such as Sir Shridat Ramphal, who was Secretary General of the Commonwealth and one of Guyana’s best scholars and representatives, and the semi-autobiographical novel of E.R. Braithwaite’s To Sir With Love.
Guyana, as we who lived through the Prime Minister-ship, Presidential turned dictatorship of L. Forbes S. Burnham era know only too well, was a country by northern hemispherical classification standards a third world underdeveloped country, that was provincial and rural, but to its Caribbean counterparts, because of the fertile land, was considered the bread basket, rated one of the highest in literacy and a steady ship of state. It was anything but bucolic. Rather Guyana was a country caught up and living in a post-colonial ideological confusion: couldn’t quite decide how to define its republic self whether as socialist or just simply anti-American and by extension to the British, anti-imperialist.
We who have lived through the evolutions of Guyana’s history, despite our present allegiances, are still proud of our heritage – our parents, close friends, the unique amalgams of African, Indian, and Amerindian foods – holding fast to gastronomic maxims such as a person who ate labba and drank creek water was bound to return, our particular lilting sing-song Creolese speech, our conversations that sound like full-scale disagreements as each of us tries to out speak the other, to make our point, and our intelligence, general knowledge and education, which placed many of us at odds against those with whom we work or attend schools; made us undeniably and identifiably Guyanese. It is a history and heritage we share to the extent that we still shudder at the memory of the 1963-64 race riots, telling ourselves that we would not ever and warning our children, against a repeat; where we cringe at the shame the recent allegations of two of our fellow Guyanese accused of plotting to blow up the John F Kennedy Airport in New York; and we shake our heads in horror at “Fineman’s” rampage through the country. We who live afar but still retain contact with our family, friends, or business associates in Guyana shake our heads uncomprehendingly at the economic state of affairs, asking ourselves: how could this be, why are prices so high, how are people making it and surviving, isn’t there a government committed to serving the people instead of their own interests, how is it that there is such a bloom and narcotic pervasiveness, which has seemed to become and support a sub-economy? These are some of the questions we ask each other and ourselves.
But have we asked what was behind the deal that Burnham made with the “Reverend” Jim Jones to lease 3,800 acres of virgin land, a turn off from the railroad that plied between Port Kaituma and Arakaka in the Kaituma region, for a commune. As rumors go, which undeniably contains a modicum of truth, Burnham received coveted U.S. dollars for allowing Jim Jones into Guyana. What really was the arrangement that not only gave Jones land in the Northwest region, but a house and land in Prashad Nagar, at the time an affluent section of northeastern Campbelville? Was there an enquiry into why did Guyana have the shame and stain of 918 deaths on its national pride? How was Guyana perceived then and how is it seen now? Guyana’s attraction to Jones was, as Burham was reported to have said after the tragedy, “he wanted to use cooperatives as the basis for the establishment of socialism, and maybe his idea of setting up a commune meshed with that,” and that coming to Guyana “would afford black members of the Temple a peaceful place to live.”
Every year, there has been some mention of Jonestown, but this year marks 30 years since the murder-suicide happened. We who live in the U.S. have witnessed the holding on to and dredging up of the memories of the past: Pearl Harbor, Jonestown, and September 11; incidentally, only those which were caused by others, and which rekindle memories and make healing and forgetting that much harder. How do we as Guyanese feel about this re-hashing of an event we would rather forget? Isn’t healing supposed to involve forgetting and allowing the past to remain in the past? While many of us know that Guyanese, in the main, had no active part in this blot on our country’s pride, are we somehow culpable by our passivity?
I could feel the bile rise in me when I listen to O’Brien recount, in a behind the scenes interview of the making of the documentary, the experience of Traci Parks, a survivor of Jonestown, who was 12 years old at the time and who returned to the area for the documentary. Parks, according to O’Brien said that as it was then, so it is now, she is still trying to wash off the oppressive heat, the sweat and the smell of Guyana from her skin. Parks speaks of the darkness and fear she experienced as she fled for her life in the jungle bordering the airstrip. Earlier this week, MSNBC carried a two-hour long presentation of Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre.
While Guyana has come a long way since the events of Nov 18, 1978 on that turn off from the stretch of railroad between Port Kaituma and Arakaka, questions still linger. Just as in the U.S. there were investigations into what happened and who caused September 11, was there ever an enquiry by Guyanese into all that was Jonestown?

Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonestown

Excerpt from Slavery of Faith by Leslie Wagner-Wilson: http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/wayoflife/11/12/jonestown.wilson.excerpt/index.html?eref=rss_latest

Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People

Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple

Dear People: Remembering Jonestown

Jonestown – The Life & Death of Peoples Temple

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November 14, 2008 - Posted by | African-American News, Blogroll, Jonestown, Politics, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] Jonestown 30years later – what about Guyanese people?Prior to Jonestown, Guyana’s impact on the world’s stage was restricted to vague references such as the Dryfus Affair, the 1963-64 race riots, and a few notable personages, such as Sir Shridat Ramphal, who was Secretary General of the … […]

    Pingback by Guyana » Giftland launches Online Shopping (Kaieteur News Aug 27, 2008) | November 16, 2008 | Reply


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