Review

The Unheard
A Memoir of Deafness and Africa

by Josh Swiller (Zambia 1994–96)
Henry Holt Paperback
September 2007
288 pages
$14.00

Reviewed by Don Beil (Somalia 1964–66)

    “. . . and if it wasn’t your time, it wasn’t your time. This must be how the people in the villages of Africa survive the insatiable plagues of their continent, by knowing the order of things.”

    THE UNHEARD OPENS with three attention grabbers that are — in order — foreboding, curious, and frightening.
         First, a photograph opposite the title page; a boy is high in the air, jumping from a trestle into a river. He appears full of self-confidence — but also ready to be swallowed by the power of the water below. However the dark river in this black-and-white photo creates apprehension for any reader. (For me it carried even more meaning as I was reminded of the deaths several years ago of two teenagers near my home in upstate New York on a similar trestle.)
         The second item that captured my attention was in the “note to the reader” which provided pronunciation help. This is particularly unusual because the author is deaf.
         Finally, there is the alarming opening paragraph of the book —

    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. … By this time on any other night, the village would have been asleep for hours. But not tonight.

         Swiller’s book addresses all three.

    The power of Africa, symbolized by the river, to do what it will on its own. It is hard not to be reminded of Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa” in which Farah warns Baroness Blixen that a river she is trying to dam will have none of it. “This water lives in Mombasa.” Swiller’s attempts at improving his corner of Africa will ring all too true to many who have served in the Peace Corps, and to all interested in creating change of any kind. His early sense that “community empowerment, sustainability, and personal responsibility” were all that were needed to dig wells was soon replaced by the begrudging acceptance of the realities of time and change in Africa – “‘. . . we will start our well soon.’ But it would be almost a year.”

    The coming to grips with deafness and the struggle life is for many who are deaf. For Swiller his Peace Corps service provided the environment in which this effort was often simplified (no one expected any foreigner to understand anything anyway), and just as often complex (how can one even try to communicate beyond even simple sign language without the ‘benefit’ of hearing?). But through it all, for Swiller, Zambia became “. . . the only place I’d ever lived where my deafness never mattered.”

    The primal fear we have of new places . . . or in this case of old places, and how it crashes down the notions we have that “underneath” all people are the same – or are they?

    THIS IS A WONDERFULLY WRITTEN, often frightening, story of one Volunteer’s service in Zambia. Not many in the RPCV community will have experienced anything like it — how many have seen a man deliberately dragged to his death? This is not a recruiting manual for the Peace Corps; but it is beautifully told with appeal to a wide audience. Some samples:

    . . . I caught a pickup that made its way on a dirt road, wracked and cratered like it had been cleared by dinosaurs.

    Evening came and filled the sky with such reds and oranges it was like the valley had been slipped inside a sliced papaya.

    I’d come to the village to find a place past deafness.

    There was nothing in Peace Corps training on . . . navigating an educational system based, apparently, on the principles of unlimited recess.

         There are brilliant descriptions of what can be the devastating effects of unnoticed deafness in infants — “By then, the fertile years for learning have passed, the mind has hardened around the absence of language, and the child, without ever knowing otherwise, is remaindered to a lesser kind of life.”
         There are sharp devastating descriptions of his interactions with students — “I could see them recalibrating everything they knew about me.”
         There are fundamental life-questions — “Why was I here? To learn everything I could, to find a place to gain perspective on my hearing loss, to live and help others to live. Most importantly, perhaps to stop asking that question.”