JONESTOWN SURVIVOR – Interview printed in Guyana Times, April 8, 2018

transcript of our TV interview was published in Guyana Times Sunday April 8, 2018, in my column 'Preserving our literary heritage

Preserving our literary Heritage

by Petamber Persaud


The Burgeoning Jonestown Bookshelf

(extract of a conversation with Laura Johnston Kohl and Jordan Vilchez, Guyana, March 2018,  both are back in Guyana on the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown episode. Kohl has already published one book on Jonestown with another forthcoming while Vilchez is preparing two books for young adults.)


PP No one book can account for a people’s history. Parts of our history are still stored in diaries and memoires and in foreign archives. However, sometimes we are fortunate to have people who are still alive and in our midst and to whom we can turn to fill in the gaps. So it is with great satisfaction to meet both of you who are survivors of Jonestown.

Much of what we know about Jonestown came to us in various formats – books, films, social media. But there are missing pieces. I was not there, you were…let’s talk about the healing process.

LJK I lived in Guyana for about two years – one year in Georgetown and I loved every minute of it and then I moved to Jonestown. I travelled back and forth when I moved into Jonestown and I was one of the people who thought I would always live in Guyana – I loved it. I remember once when driving a car on what we called the wrong side of the road and I remember thinking that I would not have to remember to drive on the other side because I was never going back to the United States so I can forget all that training; thinking I would live here forever and have a long life.  

Jonestown was like a utopia for me – a community of mixed races, there were young and old, black, white, brown, Asian and everything and I wanted that part of me to continue. And when Jim Jones started spiralling down and falling apart and becoming mental ill and drug addicted and all the other things going on with him, I still did not think the community was at risk, so after everything happened when 918 people died that day, I went back to the United States traumatized. And it took me twenty years to come out from under that rock – I said something happened on my watch, what was that. I also found out recently that people who were part of the Holocaust after WWII, many of them took twenty years to come out and say we have to be vocal so that it doesn’t happen again. And so at twenty years, I reconnected with the survivors and then I wrote my own book, my autobiography Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look

PP When was that published?

LJK 2010.

I wrote about my whole process. I think what I know today, if you are traumatised, first you have to take care of yourself to get on steady ground. Then you try to include your community and then you look at the greater community. And now on the 40th anniversary, as I look at it, I realise that I have not heard the Guyanese voice, enough, in the whole review of what happened in the People’s Temple because the kindness of Guyana allowed us to be supercharged and build this enormous community in just three years. So I came back to Guyana to reconnect with the Guyanese voices – answer questions and maybe talk about some of the rumours; discuss it more fully – I am a teacher, I teach six-graders so when I find a student who has a question, I love to follow their curiosity. So that’s one of the things we are doing by coming back – we are finding out about the curiosity and reflections from the people of Guyana who were involved with the People’s Temple so intimately especially out in the North West District by Port Kaituma.

PP Jordan, your opening thoughts.

JV Well, I came to Guyana when I was nineteen, first to Jonestown – everyone that came in, first went to Jonestown and most stayed. I was fortunate to also come out and spend time in some of the outlying areas like Georgetown,  Linden and New Amsterdam and get to know the people of Guyana well. For me, coming back here, I wanted to see Jonestown or the area that was once Jonestown for…perhaps…the last time. Something was left unfinished without having seen it again so I was able to do that and it was very healing in a way I probably wouldn’t know until I get back home. But the other reason is I also wanted to connect with the Guyanese people who had always been kind and opened up their hearts to us, every single Guyanese I have met was very friendly and welcoming. And as Laura said the Guyanese perspective hasn’t been taken into account and the damage that the incident had on Guyana was large and I wanted to acknowledge that. So our trip here has been better than I could have expected. People have been really receptive and the conversations have been rich – I feel like along with my healing we can all heal together because the Guyanese people are victimised as well and together we can go further than just leaving it as this thing that happened, what more can we do together to learn from it and be open to creativity in ways we haven’t thought of before.

PP Two things: Laura you talked about the beauty of Guyana and its hold on you, and Jordan you too, and I am happy for that.

The other thing: in my line, I always question the text – there is not much coming from Guyana except for Eusi Kwayana….

LJH He is a good friend of mine. His perspective helped me opened up looking for the Guyanese perspective. He wrote his book A New Look at Jonestown: Dimensions from a Guyanese Perspective and he had asked me to write the foreword. I read the book and  just loved it…you see when I was healing, I talked first about it was me then a little bit bigger and finally it was the bay area of San Francisco and California. I didn’t pursue it, I didn’t widen it enough. When Eusi wrote his book, he talked a lot about Guyana, he talked a lot about things bigger than Guyana – a global perspective of how a rich entity can come into a country and have no regulations, restrictions or overview because they seem so powerful, donating a lot of money and different efforts in a community. So what Eusi did, he expanded it as wide as it could be; it is not only a Guyana issue, it is not limited to the Western Hemisphere, it is really a global issue. So he included rich texts of historians and economists, people who had the  perspective and data to prove his point which is saying that Guyana is not alone in having an outside force come in and really wreck havoc. That started me thinking that there must more Guyanese who have opinions but I don’t have much contact with them. So I wrote my book and started doing a blogs on my Facebook page targeting all the people living in Guyana. So I get this rich feedback – thousands of people would look at my blog and hundreds of people would respond: Oh, yes, I saw the Guyanese man shot at the airstrip; a bullet whiz by his leg and injured him or somebody saw a truck leave.

There is so much we haven’t even explored on the surface not even the deeper issues. So we have to start with the surface but even while we were here we had a community meet at Port Kaituma, inviting everyone to ask any question and we tried to let them know anything was fine. They came – 35 or so people came –  they had all the questions, they brought up the rumours; it was a very friendly, open and active and wonderful gathering that we could look each other in the eye and what about that and Jordan or I would try to explain or agree with them that it was ridiculous or whatever…because we have a lot in common – we all saw the madness from one point or the other….

PP One point or the other. Any new information coming out of that meeting?

JV There are a lot of rumours flying around after all these years – gold, money….

LJH Supplies of cement going into Jonestown…. on the roads available at that time; it seems unlikely.

You know, in a period of three, we created a community of three huge dorms, a pavilion, a school, a library, 52 cottages, housing 1,000 people living in Jonestown.

The makeup of Jonestown was about one third children, about one third seniors. [The children] were pretty much in school, or doing gardening, or cleaning the greens we brought in or sowing. And then there was a workforce about one third kept busy feeding 1,000 people three meals a day!….   

Cement? No time for cement – only rumours….

JV This also shows you that without contact, all kinds of ideas come forth. Over this long period to time, people hadn’t the opportunity to speak to anybody.

LJK The Jonestown Institute is the most profound source of information….

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