Working as a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote African village is not an easy undertaking in any situation. For an inexperienced, idealistic and, in addition, deaf person, such an adventure makes for an extraordinary story. Josh Swiller spent close to two years in northern Zambia in the village of Mununga, one of the most deprived villages in a poor region. Referred to by locals as “Gomorrah”, a place with no hope and rumoured to have the most “ndoshi”, witchdoctors, many wondered why this young American had come amongst them. His experiences and encounters, his learning by trial and error, and, most of all, his falling in love with the village and Africa, is the content of this unusual and highly readable memoir.
Swiller was part of the first group of Volunteers to work in Zambia in 1994. Creating water and sanitation systems were the primary objective; educating and motivating the local people was the rationale. Getting villagers to dig wells turned out to be a bigger challenge than Swiller had anticipated. Local politics, tribal strife and natural distrust of outsiders undermined any initiative from the start. It did not help that the Peace Corps rules insisted on no money being brought into such a project. The local people who had never seen a white person, assumed “Ba Josh” to be wealthy but too mean spirited to share his money with them.
Life for the villagers was hard. Periods of hunger during the dry season alternated with an onslaught of flooding and disease during the rainy season. The small clinic was understaffed and completely inadequate in dealing even with the most basic services. Swiller’s description of village life is vivid and his sensitive portrayal of the people he shares his time with is personal and realistic. Augustine Jere, the health worker, stands out as a friend who helps Josh adjust to local habits and conventions. With the well digging facing major roadblocks, Swiller assists Jere in the clinic. Jere’s advice is not to address any problem head-on but to move towards it like a “snake in the grass”. Unfortunately, Josh doesn’t always adhere to the advice, with dramatic and even dangerous consequences. He is very honest about his mistakes and recognizes that part of his vulnerability is based on his own inadvertent or short sighted actions. He has become a pawn in the local power plays. He receives some reassurance when he finds out that other volunteers are facing comparable difficulties. The new main aim, they are advised by Peace Corps officials is “cultural exchange”.
The author explains that his deafness was a condition he had always found hard to cope with. Thanks to intensive speech therapy as a child he spoke well and was able to lip read in optimal conditions. Yet, despite these and his hearing aid, he was not able to overcome his feeling of being always sidelined and marginalized in conversations and groups. Living in rural Zambia changed his experience and outlook completely. For the first time, he states, deafness was not an issue for him nor for those he was communicating with. Having learned the basics of the local language, he discovered that the local tradition of talking one at a time and facing the addressee made social contacts a lot easier than he’d ever known. He discovered a new freedom and happiness that could not be shattered by any, how ever disastrous, event that occurred in Mununga.
Despite many disappointments and even dangerous situations Swiller called Mununga home. His deeply felt emotions for this part of Africa shine through his writing. Publishing his memoir a decade later suggests that Africa has left a deep mark on his soul and mind.
Swiller’s book, The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa was published in 2007 by Henry Holt and Company