Jonestown: Living through History

Sharon Maas

The Jonestown tragedy put Guyana on the map for all the wrong reasons.
The entrance to Jonestown
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On the morning of the 19th November 1978 I entered my classroom at the Alliance Française in Paris, where I was attending a course in advanced French. A few minutes later our teacher, M. Beaulieu, strode in. Instead of his usual jovial ‘Bonjour, bonjour tout le monde’ he looked straight at me, and said:

‘That’s terrible, what happened in your country!’

‘Really? What?’ I replied. I must have been the only person in the world who didn’t know. I hadn’t even read the screaming headlines at the Metro newsstands on my way into Paris. I did not have TV or radio and was completely oblivious to the catastrophe that had unfolded in the night gone by, back in my home country of Guyana.

Jim Jones in 1977

The news was slowly trickling out of Guyana and into the news reports: over 900 Americans, mostly woman and children, had committed mass suicide in a remote rainforest encampment in Guyana’s rainforest. They had all drunk lethal poison, Flavor-Aid spiked with cyanide. And Guyana, a country few people outside its borders had even heard of, burst into the world headlines overnight. Jonestown was a burst abscess, spilling its poison over the following days and weeks. The world was stunned. Guyana? Where and what was Guyana?

On that fatal night Jonestown placed Guyana firmly on the world map. Before Jonestown, if outsiders asked me where I came from, they’d say either where’s that? or oh, Ghana, Africa! After Jonestown, it became Oh, Guyana! Jonestown! Jim Jones. A rather annoying postscript to the tragedy, for Jonestown had nothing to do with the country per se. It’s a single ugly stain that overshadows the country’s positive features:  its spectacular wildlife, for example, or its magnificent waterfalls.

Guyana’s history, too, is fascinating. Having been Britain’s only colony in South America, and thus the only English-speaking country on the continent, it has a vibrant and often brutal colonial past, switching from British to Dutch to French colonial masters since the 15th century. It has seen slavery and the end of slavery. It has seen Indian indentureship; it has seen revolt and uprising and ambitious political leaders, all without the outside world ever noticing. Guyana, similar in size to Great Britain but with only a fraction of the population, was, to most Britons, insignificant in the greater order of things.

But I grew up there, and from that November morning I was intrigued. It was almost personal. Like Zoe Quint, the main character of my novel, I’d been a journalist for many years, and in the early ‘70’s I, too, had spent time in the remote Northwest District. I, too, had retreated to the remote Interior in order to take stock of my life. I had just returned from a year of backpacking around South America, and had settled with friends not far from the very site that would one day be filled with bloated dead bodies.

And so the “what-ifs” began. What if I had been living nearby, and became aware of weird goings-on nearby: uncanny noises in the night, gunshots, screams? What if I, as a journalist, had tried to investigate?

And so Zoe Quint became my alter-ego, endowed with an investigative spirit and a courage that puts her at the centre of one of the last century’s greatest non-war-related crimes. In Zoe’s fictional shoes, I relived vicariously the story of a young woman thrust into the role of a heroine, trying not only to stop the carnage but to rescue a few of the would-be victims.

At the same time I have great respect for the local Amerindians; they too are part of our historical heritage. Writing this book enabled me to highlight their lifestyle close to nature and their knowledge of flora and fauna, Guyana’s greatest treasure.

Doing so became the closest thing I have to living through history, if only in a small, safe way. Having lived off-grid myself, I knew the logistics and the difficulties the American settlers would have faced in the Northwest. It’s a hostile environment. Mosquitoes, ants, vampire bats, snakes, jaguars share the rainforest with humans, and it was never the paradise Jim Jones promised. Jonestown as a utopia had always been a pipe-dream. Add to those physical challenges the slow brainwashing perpetrated by the autocratic tyrant Jim Jones, and what happened that terrible night seems almost pre-destined.

Guyana is not Jonestown; but Jonestown drew the world’s attention to a small country with a huge backstory. That November morning woke me up to yet a new dramatic episode.

Sharon Maas is the author of The Girl From Jonestownpublished by Bookouture.