The Unheard – a memoir of deafness and Africa
by Josh Swiller; Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2007
If you yearn to relive the angst, frustrations, self-doubt and self discovery of your Peace Corps experience, this may be the book for you. Josh Swiller who served in northern Zambia in the early 1990s was an unusual volunteer who apparently had an unusually conflict ridden tour. Perhaps, as he himself would admit, it was his combative personality, but also – as he repeatedly refers to in the book – it was because the town where he was assigned was just mean and devoid of effective leadership. In any case, common cultural misunderstandings often flared up into major confrontations, especially when our idealistic hero put his foot down and stood firm on his scruples.
Josh’s experience was sadly typical in many respects. He was puzzlement to the community. Why was he there? Why was he impotent to wave a magic wand and heal the diseased and dying or provide wells, jobs or education? Ultimately since he could not work wonders, what was amiss? On Josh’s side, he too wondered why he was there. What was he to do to promote development? And how to do it? Especially since the community’s response was nearly zero. Finally, what did he accomplish?
Josh carried an additional burden as a deaf man. He could partially understand one-on-one when his hearing aids were working, but in crowds or with background noise intelligible sounds ceased. Josh wrote frankly about his deafness and the issues that he had to deal with - exclusion from group conversations for example. But part of his motivation to join the Peace Corps was to find himself and to find a place where deafness mattered less. He said he found that in Zambia. Being white and American was odd enough; no one seemed concerned with his deafness.
Josh forged a solid friendship with Augustine Jere who served as his guide to Zambian culture and the strange town they lived in. Ultimately, this friendship was tested by culture and corrupt, even evil, circumstances. Without divulging the story, let me say that it tracks. Zambians, their town, expectations and frailties come alive. The author writes compellingly. Former PCVs will recognize the reality of the world Swiller so ably describes and will admire his tenacity even while deploring his (self admitted) foolishness in attempting to deal with it.
Reviewed by Robert E. Gribbin, December 2007