*Content warning: this article discusses abuse and suicide 

Growing up in New York City, my mother always tried her best to ensure that I felt connected to my heritage and the land my ancestors came from. This meant only having pepper-pot on Christmas Day, learning how to play cricket on the weekends and watching Indian movies every Saturday night. On Wednesday nights, after I had turned nine years old, she sat me down with a notebook and pen and began teaching me Guyanese history. Her eyes always lit up with pride as she educated me about the colors of Guyana’s flag and their symbolism: green for the beautiful forests that encompassed the region, white for the ever-flowing bodies of water, gold for the country’s abundance of minerals, black for the people’s perseverance to make Guyana a better country and red for the dynamic nature that holds together an independent nation. However, for this week’s history lesson, the dim light in the corner of our living room fell on her face, but the light in her eyes faded as she recalled the horrifying mass murder-suicide that occurred almost 43 years ago. 

We often say, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” to warn individuals not to blindly believe everything they hear. However, people may not know that this phrase stems from mass manipulation and false promises that ultimately led to more than 900 dead bodies abandoned in the rainforests of Guyana –– the largest loss of American civilian lives pre-9/11 (excluding natural disasters). 

Jim Jones was born on May 31, 1931, in Crete, Ind. He would go on to become a preacher at the Peoples Temple, an Evangelist group based in San Francisco. In the 1950s, Jones became a leader who promoted desegregation and racial equality. He eventually gained a large following of primarily elderly, Black women and children due to his charismatic personality and ideas that preyed on an audience seeking acceptance in society. “My life was in turmoil, I had a failed marriage and I was looking for a place to be political in a safer environment after a series of bad decisions,” Laura Kohl, a survivor of Jonestown, stated when questioned about why she felt a sense of comfort in the Peoples Temple. However, with Jones’s newfound fame as a preacher, he became increasingly paranoid of the American government’s scrutiny. 

Jones preached about creating a utopian socialist society located in the jungles of Guyana to his followers who, believing in this, donated their money to move to Guyana and create a community named Jonestown. His supporters believed they were going to be welcomed by the tall palm trees that graced the rainforests of Guyana. They believed the wide and bright green leaves would protect them from the injustices they were facing in America. However, when these followers arrived, they were met with small and shabby huts located on nutrient-deprived soil that was not sustainable for large groups. Their utopian socialist society resembled a prison camp. Survivors of Jonestown recall having to work long hours with minimal food while suffering abuse from Jones. He forced his followers to write him letters explaining their fears and past mistakes, and if he perceived that they “betrayed” him, Jones would divulge the information at weekly public meetings. “He started to alienate you from your families … destroy that family unit,” said Jonestown survivor Yulanda Williams. “So that then he could become the predator, but also the one who was the provider of every need that you required in life.” In addition, Jones would rehearse mass suicides in which followers were instructed to drink a beverage called Flavor-Aid, which was concocted by mixing a fruit-flavored powder with water, similar to Kool-Aid. Jones repeated this frequently as a test of their loyalty to ensure that on the day he officially decided to proceed with the previously mentioned murder-suicide, Jonestown would have no survivors. 

Friends and families of followers that went to Jonestown became concerned with the idea that their loved ones were being held against their will after receiving letters that they believed were not truly written with excitement and joy. Concerned with the complaints from relatives and from reports of horrendous living conditions at Jonestown, U.S. Representative Leo Ryan, D-Calif., wrote to the House of Foreign Affairs asking to make a visit to the Peoples Temple in Guyana. Initially, Jones refused to have Rep. Ryan as a guest but eventually allowed him to come.

On Nov. 18, 1978, Rep. Ryan arrived on the Port Kaituma airstrip with several journalists and was allowed to visit the commune. During his visit, people in the commune told Rep. Ryan they wished to return home. Tension rose within the community as Jones became aware of this, so he decided to finally conduct the mass murder-suicide. As Rep. Ryan was on the Port Kaituma airstrip, he and several other journalists were shot by gunmen affiliated with the Peoples Temple. While Rep. Ryan was being attacked, followers at the commune were ordered to drink a grape-flavored punch laced with cyanide. After bodies dropped to the floor, Jones had his gunmen traverse the commune to ensure that all of his followers died. When examining bodies from Jonestown, inspectors discovered injections on many, affirming claims that those who played dead were later injected with lethal poison. Any remaining survivors were either asleep during the event, posed as a part of Rep. Ryan’s party or were sent by Jones to retrieve supplies or carry out negotiations with different nations.

As we move forward and reflect on the events of Jonestown, we must be mindful of the people who lost their lives seeking a paradise and liberation from constricting societal bounds. We must respect the efforts of the journalists who accompanied Rep. Ryan and sought to unmask the ugly truths of Jonestown. Survivors of Jonestown are continuously reminded of the psychological harm and danger they faced, many feeling extreme guilt for making it out alive. Saying “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” belittles the events of Jonestown and mocks the people who were victims of Jones’s terror. It reduces Guyana to a mere shell of a horrific legacy. 

When I think of Guyana, I hear the sound of Tassa drums ringing through the air on wedding days, signaling a time of joy and celebration in a neighborhood. I remember my summer visits to Guyana as a child, and I feel my bare feet touch the rocky ground, the clay-like soil seeping through my toes as I played hide and seek with my cousins. I see the cows roaming the neighborhood, heading towards the trenches to graze on the grass and sip water flowing through. I see the local shops that sell traditional Indian clothing, sarees and lenghas covered in small crystal diamonds with carefully hemmed neon flowers at the edge of each piece. But when the harmful idiom is said, it ceases the tropical breeze, dries out the water of my ancestor’s land, makes the once vibrant green leaves wilt in the sun and reduces Guyana to a mass graveyard. The adventures of my childhood are the things the people of Jonestown deserved to see, hear and feel during their time in Guyana. And once we clean up our language and move forward with respect for the dead, we can breathe life into Guyana again.  

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