Surviving Deafness and Deprivation in Remote Africa

Josh Swiller

Josh Swiller, who has been deaf since childhood, lived in remote Zambia for two years working for the Peace Corps. Joshi Radin hide caption

itoggle caption Joshi Radin

Into the Hearing World

In 2005 Josh Swiller and his brother, Sam, received cochlear implants and partially recovered their hearing.

As a deaf child growing up in Manhattan, Josh Swiller would often take out his frustration with the hearing world on his little brother.

But when he traveled to Zambia to work for the Peace Corps in the mid-1990s, his combative style got him in trouble —ultimately threatening his life. In Zambia he also found a world where his deafness wasn't central to his identity.

In his poignant work The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa, readers experience Africa through the eyes and ears of a man who tries to reconcile his deafness in a foreign culture. Surrounded by universal poverty and disease, Swiller's disability almost becomes irrelevant as he treats sick babies and fights for irrigation projects and better AIDS facilities.

When he encounters a remote school for deaf children in Zambia, he realizes the deaf world he experienced growing up was light-years from the students he sees "pushed to a corner." When Swiller offers to teach the children — mentioning to the school administrator that he's deaf — the man laughs disbelievingly, saying that deaf children can't be taught.

Swiller also finds a friend for life in Augustine Jere, a chess player and a steadfast friend who sticks with Swiller even when violence threatens both of their lives. Together they forge a friendship through adversity and help the residents of Mununga, a dusty village on the shores of Lake Mweru.

Scott Simon spoke with Swiller about his time in Africa and the cochlear implants that ultimately changed his life in 2005.

Excerpt: 'The Unheard'

'The Unheard' Book Cover

Prologue

This book excerpt includes language that some readers may find offensive.

We were sitting on Jere's living room floor in the dark, clutching our handmade weapons—two-by-fours with five-inch nails driven all the way through them, so that the business end of the nails emerged like fangs from the mouth of a poisonous snake. Whenever I shifted my grip, splinters from the rough, unfinished surface of the wood jabbed into my palm. It was almost ten o'clock, late for Mununga — late for any village deep in the Zambian bush. By this time on any other night, the village would have been asleep for hours. But not tonight.

Jere and I sat beneath the window, our legs touching. A half-gallon plastic jug of banana wine rested between his knees when we weren't drinking from it. The floor was smooth cool cement, covered in the middle by a single bamboo mat. Ordinarily, a couch made of varnished lumber and cheap scratchy foam surrounded the mat, but we'd stacked that up against the door, behind a tall dres­ser, made from mpanga boards stained the color of dried blood.

"This way," said Jere, my friend, the best friend I'd ever had. "If they try to come in through the door, the furniture will stall them, and if they try to come in through the window, we'll hit them with these."

He rubbed his weapon against the floor as he spoke, trying to show confidence. But I could feel his fear. It had a smell to it, sour and rich. As for myself, I wondered what it would be like to hit someone with a club studded with nails. Would I hear his screams? Would the club get stuck if I swung too hard? I imagined wres­tling the nails out of ragged, bloody flesh. I wondered how it would feel to be beaten to death, to grasp that things broken wouldn't be fixed. It seemed like it would hurt.

I was terrified; I was exhausted; but I had also reached a state where terror and exhaustion were subsumed by survival and life became the immediate moment and nothing else. Weapon. Wine. Door. The bruise on my face. My heartbeat — this was all my mind could focus on.

I had become way too familiar with this state.

Thing is: beyond the furniture, on the other side of that door, was a mob. The mob wanted to kill Jere and me. We knew this because they had said, "We're going to kill you."

This is what almost two years of Peace Corps service had come to.

Jere picked up his makeshift weapon, a rake for his maize fields in a previous incarnation, and swung it a few times.

"I had my hearing aids off," I admitted. "Didn't hear him. ­ Didn't hear anything."

"Ai, I always forget about those things."

Someone smashed loudly into the door, knocking the dresser back an inch. We jumped up.

"They're on now," I said. "I heard that."

Jere nervously eyed the door, then spoke. "I hate this place."

An hour earlier Jere had been in a shouting match, the culmination of six months of escalating enmity, with a village elder named Boniface. Shouting matches were rare in Mununga, where keeping face and allowing others to do the same was integral to the culture. A crowd flocked to the health clinic where we worked to observe the argument, the two men, one tall and well built, one short and pear-shaped, screaming and waving their hands at each other. When I tried to break it up, Boniface, the tall man, stormed out. He returned ten minutes later with a group of drunk men, threw open the door to Jere's office, pointed at Jere, and yelled — and I couldn't understand him because of the background noise and the language barrier, so I'm paraphrasing here — "I'm going to reach down your throat and rip out your fucking soul." Jere, the Mununga Rural Health Catchment Area's senior clinic officer and the bravest, wisest man I knew, cowered behind his desk. We had seen what drunken mobs could do in this town; it wasn't pretty. The last mob had left a half-mile-long bloodstain in the road.

I turned my hearing aids off, and stepped forward, smack between the two adversaries and tried to calm Boniface down. That's when I was hit in the face with a rock.

"Does your jaw hurt?" Jere asked.

"No," I said.

It hurt.

We pushed the door closed, jammed a half section of the couch underneath the doorknob, shoved the dresser behind that. Then we picked up our weapons again. I took a swallow from the jug of wine. There were more loud noises from outside.

"Is that them?" I asked Jere.

"That's the river."

"Are you sure? That sounded like shouts."

"It's the river," he repeated.

I wasn't convinced. I grabbed his forearm. "I'm not good with sounds from far away. I've explained this to you."

"Yes, I know."

I looked him in the eye. The loud noise outside continued. "Is that really the river?"

"No."

I'm deaf — that's why I couldn't make out the source of the noise. The hearing aids in my ears amplified sounds several thousand times but from behind a closed door it was impossible to tell the difference between the rustle of a river and the shouts of a mob. If the fat lady was out there on the dirt lawn sharpening a machete and singing for the two of us, I couldn't tell. Deafness made our precarious situation more precarious. But deafness was the reason I was here in Mununga in the first place, and it was the reason I'd come to love this place and call it home.

Jere and I stood tensed by the door. I bent to look through the keyhole, then jerked back with the thought that someone could jam a stick through the hole into my eye. Ten minutes passed.

"It's late," said Jere. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. "It's very late. We've been here hours. I think they must have gone."

"I don't think so," I replied.

"No, I think it was just a drunken boast. I don't think Boniface would really kill us."

"Well, this is Mununga. It is Boniface. You saw what they did on Christmas."

"That's true," Jere agreed. "But I really think they've gone."

"You sure? Listen closely."

"Yes, I'm sure," he said, and as he spoke a rock shattered through the window, showering us with glass. It clattered across the room, disappeared in a dark corner. The smells of wood smoke, perspiration, and alcohol poured through the broken window in a sudden rush that made it hard to breathe. The noise from outside, unobstructed, grew louder — at least now I could be sure it wasn't the river.

Pressing my back flat against the wall, I curled my hand tightly around my weapon. Another rock came through the window, flying neatly through the hole the first one had made, cracking against the far wall.

"They're throwing rocks!" Jere hissed.

"Really?"

We drew back, watched the door, and waited.

Holt Paperbacks/ Henry Holt & Co. Copyright 2007

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The Unheard
The Unheard

A Memoir of Deafness and Africa

by Josh Swiller

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