Jun 30

The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa

Posted by Soliloquy in Adults with disabilities | Hearing Impaired

A young man’s quest to reconcile his deafness in an unforgiving world leads to a remarkable sojourn in a remote African village that pulsates with beauty and violence. “These are hearing aids. They take the sounds of the world and amplify them.’ Josh Swiller recited this speech to himself on the day he arrived in Mununga, a dusty village on the shores of Lake Mweru. Deaf since a young age, Swiller spent his formative years in frustrated limbo on the sidel… More >>

The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa

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  • Working as a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote African village is not an easy undertaking in any situation. For an inexperienced, idealistic and, in addition, deaf person, such an adventure makes for an extraordinary story. Josh Swiller spent close to two years in northern Zambia in the village of Mununga, one of the most deprived villages in a poor region. Referred to by locals as “Gomorrah”, a place with no hope and rumoured to have the most “ndoshi”, witchdoctors, many wondered why this young American had come amongst them. His experiences and encounters, his learning by trial and error, and, most of all, his falling in love with the village and Africa, is the content of this unusual and highly readable memoir.

    Swiller was part of the first group of Volunteers to work in Zambia in 1994. Creating water and sanitation systems were the primary objective; educating and motivating the local people was the rationale. Getting villagers to dig wells turned out to be a bigger challenge than Swiller had anticipated. Local politics, tribal strife and natural distrust of outsiders undermined any initiative from the start. It did not help that the Peace Corps rules insisted on no money being brought into such a project. The local people who had never seen a white person, assumed “Ba Josh” to be wealthy but too mean spirited to share his money with them.

    Life for the villagers was hard. Periods of hunger during the dry season alternated with an onslaught of flooding and disease during the rainy season. The small clinic was understaffed and completely inadequate in dealing even with the most basic services. Swiller’s description of village life is vivid and his sensitive portrayal of the people he shares his time with is personal and realistic. Augustine Jere, the health worker, stands out as a friend who helps Josh adjust to local habits and conventions. With the well digging facing major roadblocks, Swiller assists Jere in the clinic. Jere’s advice is not to address any problem head-on but to move towards it like a “snake in the grass”. Unfortunately, Josh doesn’t always adhere to the advice, with dramatic and even dangerous consequences. He is very honest about his mistakes and recognizes that part of his vulnerability is based on his own inadvertent or short sighted actions. He has become a pawn in the local power plays. He receives some reassurance when he finds out that other volunteers are facing comparable difficulties. The new main aim, they are advised by Peace Corps officials is “cultural exchange”.

    The author explains that his deafness was a condition he had always found hard to cope with. Thanks to intensive speech therapy as a child he spoke well and was able to lip read in optimal conditions. Yet, despite these and his hearing aid, he was not able to overcome his feeling of being always sidelined and marginalized in conversations and groups. Living in rural Zambia changed his experience and outlook completely. For the first time, he states, deafness was not an issue for him nor for those he was communicating with. Having learned the basics of the local language, he discovered that the local tradition of talking one at a time and facing the addressee made social contacts a lot easier than he’d ever known. He discovered a new freedom and happiness that could not be shattered by any, how ever disastrous, event that occurred in Mununga.

    Despite many disappointments and even dangerous situations Swiller called Mununga home. His deeply felt emotions for this part of Africa shine through his writing. Publishing his memoir a decade later suggests that Africa has left a deep mark on his soul and mind. [Friederike Knabe]

  • I was also a member of that first group of PCV’s to serve in Zambia and Josh and I were two of the eight who completed our commitments, although a couple of those who didn’t complete their stint left for health reasons. I loved his book, and was unable to put it down once I started on it. I’m only mentioned in the book once, a bit out of character. Page 42: I’m the “middle-aged alcoholic from Michigan” (I object to the “middle-aged” part, as I was but a young lad of 39 at the time).

    The story of Josh’s departure from Munungu was never fully revealed to me until reading the book. Like all government-related organizations, Peace Corps is great at keeping secrets and rumors always abound. Josh and I were not close but we did bond a bit after he returned to Kabwe and was once again teaching the deaf students. It was only upon reading the book that I gained an appreciation for his intellect and the really horrible experiences he had in Munungu. At Peace Corps meetings or functions, he always seemed distracted, not interested, withdrawn. After reading the book, my eyes are opened to what the guy endured up there in Munungu and what being deaf is really all about.

    I pre-ordered the book, with low expectations. Basically, I was concerned about what he may have said about me. What I did not expect was the clarity and smooth-flow of the narrative, the exceptional descriptors of characters (“voice like firecrackers” comes to mind), the entirely accurate desriptions of life in a bush village. A lot of what he wrote brought tears to my eyes, as I had experienced similar things in my own village of Lukwesa. Plus, I knew or had met a lot of the people he talks about in the book.

    After reading it, I was ashamed at myself for not getting to know him better while in Zambia those two years, for underestimating his abilities, for not have taken more time while there to help him with his problems instead of selfishly concentrating on my own. The book opened my eyes to a lot of things that were happening right under my nose, but in my hearing ignorance I was blind (equally handicapped) to events as they occurred in regards to brother Josh. My apologies, Josh.

    This is a great story written by a courageous young man who coped with a host of things (in Zambia as well as dealing with his own deafness) way better than those of us who are not so impaired. I vouch for its truthfulness and content and I know I will be reading it over and over again until the pages are frayed at the corners and the book will lie open voluntarily at whatever page number I’m on.

    Greg Irish

    Las Vegas, Nevada

    Member of Peace Corps Zambia One

  • This is perhaps the best memoir I have ever read! Joshua is a gifted writer as well as a born story-teller with an amazing eye for the telling detail and just enough mordant wit to keep you from becoming overwhelmed by the pathos and cruelty he witnesses.

  • So what makes this better than your average ‘let-me-tell-you-about-my-time-in-a-third-world-country’ book?

    1. A real story. Powerful material. No flowery travelogue here, no do-gooder cliches.

    2. This guy can write. Pithy and unsentimental style; characters and scenes spring vividly to life.

    3. And I can’t emphasize this enough: Swiller is genuinely funny, with an spot-on sense of comic timing.

    Highly recommended, an engaging and satisfying read.

  • Review originally published in the Hipster Book Club, April 2008.

    Josh Swiller’s memoir, The Unheard, tells the story of his two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mununga, a dusty Zambian village home to tribal factions and a host of refugees from neighboring Zaire. Deaf since childhood, Josh was raised by devoted parents who trained him to speak and lip-read with the assistance of hearing aids. Raised to fit into the hearing world, he attended Yale but encountered feelings of isolation and frustration toward heavily-accented professors who spoke into chalkboards. In graduate school at Gallaudet University, he attempted to immerse himself in a new Deaf community but discovered that he was just as isolated in a world that spoke exclusively American Sign Language. So Josh went to Africa to find “a place past deafness.”

    After a ten-week training course, Josh was off to inspire a sense of community ownership in Mununga, with a charter to organize the villagers to build their first community infrastructure: wells to provide fresh water to the disease-ridden community. The villagers, led by politicians whose primary concern was getting their rake of the banana wine production, were perplexed that the white man didn’t have the money and power to give them a well. Politicians had deep-seated tribal affairs to sort out and were suspicious of Josh’s motives in offering “help” to the community without bringing along cash and resources. Josh writes of the plight of the Africans with a voice of introspection and humor. His teaching experience required navigating “an educational system based, apparently, on the principles of unlimited recess.” By keeping the tone light, Josh conveys profound insights with nary a trace of pity for himself or the economically ravaged country.

    For his part, Josh was able to speak Bemba, the tribal language, better than any of his fellow volunteers. Bemba was just another series of verbal sounds Josh had to perform without hearing. In the village and even the larger city centers of Africa, background noise was low, so Josh was able to distinguish sounds more easily. He also noted that people tended to speak to him slowly and directly, further aiding his comprehension.

    Josh formed warm friendships with his cook, houseboy, and fellow health clinic worker Jere. In many ways, The Unheard is the story of Josh’s friendship with this steadfast and wise chess player. Jere was Josh’s constant ally throughout his struggles fighting for resources, adhering to tribal customs, and maneuvering against a ferocious tribal leader out to destroy Josh for his own purposes. Josh learned to adapt his style to reach the Africans in any way possible. In one of his more successful moves, he fosters cultural exchange by passing out a Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition to his male students.

    The zenith of Josh’s experience in Africa was the construction of a local clinic for which Josh put his own Peace Corps career on the line. He self-funded the effort via outside grants in quasi-violation of bureaucratic red tape. Throughout his time in Mununga, Josh wrestled with his inability to effect lasting change against a tidal wave of cultural differences. He finally acquiesced to the urgings of his friend Jere to make one small, practical contribution to the village by building a clinic. Josh’s arch nemesis, the tribal leader Boniface, manipulated both the Peace Corps volunteer and the villagers throughout the process, misappropriating project supplies and resources, and finally sabotaging the project in a climactic lynch mob of violence. For Josh, the after effects were devastating. He was forced to suppress his personal outrage and again adhere to the advice of his friend Jere, who continually encouraged Josh to adapt to the local system. Josh learned that subtly outwitting Boniface at his own game was much more effective than pursing any official means of justice.

    Josh Swiller did indeed find a place past deafness in the lakeside village of Mununga, Zambia. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in a war-torn, disease-ravaged region in which being light-skinned and American was strange enough that no one bothered to alienate him based on deafness. In his memoir, he casts a critical eye at the Peace Corps process as well as his own conduct in Africa. Josh recognizes that he had naïve goals when he first arrived; learning how to work within the system was an arduous process. He balances his criticism of the local government corruption and his frustration at the lack of industrial progress with his genuine awe and appreciation for the beauty and friendship he found in Mununga. The Unheard is at once a comedy of errors, a coming-of-age story, and a touching tribute to a strange piece of paradise.

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