Surviving Deafness and Deprivation in Remote Africa Growing up deaf in New York, Josh Swiller's disability was central to his identity. But when he traveled to Zambia to work for the Peace Corps, he found his deafness became almost irrelevant. In a new memoir, Swiller recounts his life-changing journey to Africa.
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Surviving Deafness and Deprivation in Remote Africa

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Surviving Deafness and Deprivation in Remote Africa

Surviving Deafness and Deprivation in Remote Africa

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Josh Swiller is a Yale man from Manhattan's Upper West Side, whose been a forest ranger, a carpenter, a raw food chef and a teacher, among many other things. He was also born moderately deaf, a condition that quickly worsen, though, through a mix of cleverness and the neglect in the clamor of growing up among four siblings, it was long overlooked.

SIMON: It's so nice to have you with us.

JOSH SWILLER: Thank you.

SIMON: Do you mind if I begin by asking - just so we'll understand during the interview - how deaf are you?

SWILLER: Well, I am profoundly deaf. And past that, I think the only distinction is just stone deaf, pretty much. And about five years ago, hearing aids stopped working for me. So then I went two years with no hearing whatsoever, and I just signed. And then in August of 2005, I had an operation for a cochlear implant. So now, I wear a cochlear implant in my right ear, and it's been an amazing success. It cuts the nerve to the ear. And instead of hearing through an ear, you hear through a computer. And so with this computer, my hearing has improved from getting about 14 percent of the words that are said on a standard random test to very close to a hundred percent. So it's been amazing.

SIMON: But it helps if I'm able to look at you?

SWILLER: Yes. I read lips too. Sometimes I guess and hope I'm right.

SIMON: Well, I find it amazing to understand the younger Josh Swiller that you write about in this book for - you were so good at lip reading, a lot of people - I mean, growing up, people in your own family didn't know you were deaf. This became a revelation.

SWILLER: No. No. I have a cousin who's also deaf, and he likes to say that he can understand just enough that people don't get how hard it is.

SIMON: Your solace in your deafness as you were growing up was literature - reading...


SIMON: ...and beating on your brothers.

SWILLER: Yes. Yeah. That's an important one. You need the physical outlet. I mean, there were all these frustrations and, you know, deafness - it's a very private disability, in a way. You don't - people don't see it. And if you're raised mainstream like I was - that is that you're not raised to sign - then you're pretty much always trying to be hearing, to be something you're not. So you're always kind of fighting against your condition and trying not to let people know about it. But somewhere, it's going to come out. And luckily, I had a little brother. I have two, so it could come out on them.

SIMON: Yeah. The tension must be terrible and, I guess, socking your brother, who, by the way, they both sound as if they've liked it as much as you did.

SWILLER: Yeah. Well, I talked to the therapist.


SIMON: I want to get you to read a section from your book, which is - I don't mind saying - funny and moving and just beautifully observed, when you first arrived in the village of Mununga.


SIMON: We'll tell the people at home, there's a minor - a small word in here that your children have heard but you might want - might not want them to hear at this morning.

SWILLER: Even one of the village lunatics got in a greeting. As I ate a snack on my porch, he patted my shoulders and showed me his dick. (Foreign language spoken), I said. Thank you. (Foreign language spoken), he replied. No, white man, thank you.


SIMON: And thank you for reading that.

SWILLER: You're welcome.

SIMON: Not a lovable place. You came to love many people in it. You refer to one of the principal characters - and the principal character in the book - Augustine Jere...


SIMON: best friend for your life.

SWILLER: Where can I start? I mean, he was a chess master. He liked to quote "Romeo and Juliet." And he came from a place of wanting to do the right thing. And I could understand how like most people (unintelligible) who get into the health fields and get into teaching. They - a lot of them start to try and play the system to make sure they have enough money, to make sure they can eat. And he never did that. It was always about doing his job and being decent. And he was more than a friend - he was a guide. He was one of those people I can look back on and think, you know, this is how I should be.

SIMON: He was also willing to stand with you and risk his life with you, wasn't he?

SWILLER: He was. He was. Although, he'd be like, dude, stop getting in trouble so much.

SIMON: What got you in trouble there in that village?

SWILLER: I think part of it was just cultural differences and not - and part of it might have been because the hearing loss and not understanding some of the subtleties with how I was supposed to interact, and how I was supposed to behave. And so I was good at fighting. And...

SIMON: You confronted people. They would say we have our own ways of doing things.

SWILLER: Yes. They called it the snake in the grass. That you have to approach people like a snake in the grass. You don't come right at someone and say, this is what I want. You, kind of, slide around and sort of meander your way to the point. And I go like, come on, we need more medicines. The chief should definitely be helping us out more. Well, I'm not going to play with that. Not the best approach. I mean, I wish I'd been able to get more accomplished. I don't know what approach would have worked. To this day, I don't know what approach.

SIMON: You were trying to dig a well.

SWILLER: I was trying to dig a well. I tried to dig several wells. I would say it was about two days travel from the nearest place to buy a bag of cement. And there was no way to get stuff up to us. But we were the first group, and we didn't know that what we were doing was going to be hard. We were going to change the world.

SIMON: Yeah.

SWILLER: We were going to save the world.

SIMON: Yeah.

SWILLER: I mean, I can't even do my laundry most days, but I was going to save the world.


SIMON: Well, digging a well is hard when you have to do it essentially with your bare hands. And a lot of people wonder, what's a well? Why do they want to do it?

SWILLER: Yeah. And they're like, hey, I've been drinking from the river my whole life. I'm fine. And you're like, yeah, but three of your four kids have died. But they were making do with what they had. And another thing they had, this tremendous, tremendous joy for life in spite of all that - maybe even because of it. Maybe because, you know, that like, oh, I might not live until tomorrow, I might as well have a good time today. I'd like to say that there were no bad habits in Mununga, only full-blown addictions.


SWILLER: People didn't have one drink. They had until they couldn't drink anymore.

SIMON: Yeah. They - at one point, when you go to try and get some supplies, you come back on a bus. Something happened to you onboard that bus, which is an image, I guess, that you will probably have for the rest of your life.

SWILLER: Yeah. It's still not very easy to talk about.

SIMON: Yeah.

SWILLER: And in Zambia, children have to do whatever adults tell them. So he didn't really have any choice and, you know, I figured his legs weren't that long. So he went and took my seat. And five minutes later, the bus crashed. And he was killed because he was thrown out the window. So it was a very, I guess, life- altering experience. Excuse me.

SIMON: Let me try a difficult question.


SIMON: Do you carry that little boy's - some essence of his life with you now?

SWILLER: I try to. I mean it. I wish I did a better job of it. But I tried to remember, you know, that like every day is a gift. I mean, it could have been me in that seat. And we have this assumption that, you know, we'll always have time. There's really not that much time, and it's really not worth harming other people.

SIMON: Are there times, now that you're hearing the whole cacophony of sounds that is our world, particularly in New York - are there times when you sometimes miss the quiet?

SWILLER: Oh, sure. I think one of the most amazing things about deafness, and one of the most amazing things about the signing deaf community is when you're deaf without hearing aids or implants, you're alone with your thoughts a lot. And I think being alone with your thoughts, it promotes an empathy for other people, because you get to see having a mind with all of its complaints and thoughts and worries is not an easy thing for anyone. And if you ever spent time in the deaf community, it's one of the most wonderful, compassionate communities. And I think, maybe with all these noise we have in our modern world, that it gets lost a little bit.

SIMON: But it's nicer hearing for you?

SWILLER: It's what I know. I've come to like Van Morrison. It's the best language for making fun of my brothers.


SWILLER: But this is what I know.

SIMON: Thanks so much for being with us.

SWILLER: Thank you.

SIMON: Josh Swiller. His new book is "The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa."


VAN MORRISON: (Singing) And when that foghorn blows I will be coming home. And when that foghorn blows I want to hear it. I don't have to fear it and I want to rock your gypsy soul.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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