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Book Review: The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:36 pm

The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa
Josh Swiller
Holt, September 2007, $14

You find yourself in Mununga, a threadbare town miles from nowhere in northern Zambia. You are sitting on the floor of your friend’s one-room, one-window house. It is night and dark; there is no electricity in Mununga. The sounds outside the door, which is barricaded, are not crickets, but a restless mob ready for some blood sport. You have, it appears, made enemies. You have committed a few cultural faux pas, true; you occasionally have been pig-headed, true again; worst, you have willfully cultivated a disharmonious relationship with the local thug. A rock splinters the window’s glass.

You are Josh Swiller, a Peace Corps volunteer as far from peace as Mununga is from anywhere, and you may well be about to experience a really ugly death.

That unhappy night would come nearly two years into Swiller’s Mununga days. He had come as an ambassador: “I would oversee Great Works of Development while learning Great Lessons about Humanity.” He would dig a well to bring clean water to the town. He would dig many wells, and schistosomiasis—snail fever—would no longer bedevil the people.

Not so. The people of Mununga had little truck with the Peace Corps’s mantra of sustainability. If they were going to work, they wanted to be paid.

Swiller, who now lives in Cold Spring, had also come to Africa to see if it might be a place where his deafness would not leave him marginalized. And much of the beauty of The Unheard is in how he finds just that. He is in the fray of life: The ceaseless ambient noise of America is absent in Mununga, so his hearing aids work. People speak to his face, so he can read their lips, and they are happy to repeat themselves. They have never seen anything like Swiller and they have hopes for him.

But they won’t dig wells with him. So Swiller finds other ways to be helpful. He works in the local health clinic, run by another outsider, and they become fast friends. They tend to the sick and their horrific parade of diseases with little more than aspirin. He also finds ways to be unhelpful: He has a drunken fling with his neighbor’s daughter, which results in a lawsuit; he challenges the authority of Boniface, the thug, which in Swiller’s cultural ignorance he thinks he can do with impunity. In a place where people will happily throw a basketball game to the visiting Zambian Air Force team because they don’t want them to bomb their village in retaliation, you don’t provoke the heavies.

Melancholy plays like the bounce and echo of distant church bells throughout the book, but that doesn’t keep Swiller from being a delight to read. His writing is comfortably hip, with the right amount of brio, and his vivid prose brings his new home to life: “Evening came and filled the sky with such reds and oranges it was like the valley had been slipped inside a sliced papaya.” He never misses an opportunity to laugh—sourness could have eaten this story alive—especially at himself: His most successful act of cultural exchange is sharing the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Bikinis can’t help Swiller when Boniface turns the town against him. The people no longer welcome him, to say the least. Swiller flees at the break of dawn. Smart boy, he read their lips.

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