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Jewish Journal

Books: A compassionate journey of deafness in Africa

by Celia Soudry

November 8, 2007 | 7:00 pm

"The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa" by Josh Swiller (Holt, $14).


While traveling through small, desolate villages in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, Josh Swiller shared his shack with the natives, letting them sleep on his couch and read his coveted Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, which was stealthily hidden beneath his mattress. As part of the program's "cultural exchange," Swiller found the magazine to be the best representation of American culture he could find. Others from Mununga, a village nestled within the Zambian bush, enjoyed the exchange while flipping delicately through the pages, some never having seen a woman's thighs before.

Born partially deaf, Swiller lost his hearing completely when he was 4 years old. With help from his hearing aids and audiologist, who did not believe in "limits, excuses or self-pity," Swiller, now 36, learned to read lips and communicate with others.

In Swiller's first book, "The Unheard," published in September, he tells a story of deafness and Africa, explaining how, in African villages, he communicated in English, Bemba and oftentimes without words.

Swiller, who has described himself as "stone-deaf," traveled with the Peace Corps to help the needy and find a place where hearing was not a necessity to be accepted and make a connection.

In August 2005, Swiller had surgery for a cochlear implant, which allows him to hear through a computer in his right ear.

During Swiller's visit to Dutton's Bookstore in Brentwood last month, the author shared multiple meanings of his book title with enthused family members and fans. In the boisterous courtyard patio adjacent to busy San Vicente Boulevard, Swiller explained that he titled his book, "The Unheard," to expose unheard phrases and questions of deafness, unheard lives in Africa, and unheard, unappreciated moments of peace.

"Life is too short to forget those," he said.

Swiller kept the crowd chuckling, sharing childhood memories of rivalries with Zev, one of his three brothers, who would taunt him and give him faux answers to youthful questions. In one scene in the book, a young Swiller asks his younger brother Zev why the castaways in "Gilligan's Island" could not simply set a bonfire to attract planes and rescue them. His brother told him it was because "Everyone in the world is dead."

Zev visited Swiller in Zambia, having recently returned to New York from Israel after living in a kibbutz near Tel Aviv for nine months. Zev shared experiences of living in the kibbutz, dredging a fishpond, heavy drinking and breaking up with his girlfriend, whom he described as having a manly voice. Even in the most delicate of situations, the playful rivalry between the two brothers remained in the bush.

While he described his hearing aids as invaluable, Swiller also felt as if they were two microphones shoved in his ears. He would remove them in dangerous situations to help him stay calm and focus on the tasks at hand. Although the aids helped him hear the flowing of rivers and other serene sounds in the villages, he also heard the screaming agony of the tortured and terminally ill. Weighing babies in inadequate clinics and digging wells to retrieve fresh water were some of Swiller's tasks as a Peace Corps volunteer. As a final attempt to improve quality of life in Zambia, Swiller opted to request more money and supplies from the Peace Corps to launch a new, much-needed AIDS clinic.

Discovering his closest friend in Mununga, Augustine Jere, a chess master who liked to quote Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," had AIDS, as did many others in the bush, was only the beginning of the suffering Swiller would come to know all too well. Swiller witnessed one young boy have his leg hacked off as punishment for stealing fish from the river, and watched another boy die beside him in an overturned bus.

Swiller carries those images with him still, but turned the anguish of an abandoned people into hope using humor, finding simplicity in underdeveloped villages, uncomplicated by busy city life, reassuring.

After being fired from a New York City law firm, Swiller used his unemployment insurance to spend close to four years writing and recounting his journeys in Africa, living in a friend's barn in Maine. Writing without hearing aids helped clear his mind and focus solely on the events he encountered in the Peace Corps from 1994 to 1996.

Swiller received guidance from his Jewish grandfather on his mother's side. They shared a passion for writing and intellectual curiosity. His grandfather on his father's side emphasized humor.

"Humor is what makes life bearable," Swiller said, "Whenever you can laugh at yourself, you know the situation is OK. A lot of that is very much a Jewish attitude."

Although Swiller was far removed from his tight-knit Jewish family, he did not abandon Jewish traditions. While in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, Swiller, together with the only other Jewish volunteer in the program, experienced Passover in a way like never before. In a large house owned by a foreign service officer, surrounded by razor wire, three Zambian cooks served goat and hot pepper, substituting them for lamb and horseradish. The seder was meaningful for Swiller in many ways. In the back of his mind, he hoped to return home for the next seder, which would be in Scarsdale, N.Y. Growing up in Westchester, N.Y., Swiller was raised in a kosher household, but was not able to become fluent in Hebrew like his brothers because of his hearing disability.

In a village where Judaism was unheard of, Swiller received reactions such as "You killed Jesus, right?"

After telling someone in Zambia he was Jewish, they said, "Oh, I want to be Jewish, too."

Christians in the villages take the Old Testament very literally, and "in some ways it was like living in an Old Testament universe," he said. It would be great if all students, after finishing college, could spend one year doing development work in the United States or abroad, Swiller advised, because it "forces you to step outside of your comfort zone." Although he was tempted to give the villagers money and supplies they needed, he said "if you give the people things, they become dependent on you and you totally see it. It's awful." You can see it in any refugee camp, he added.

Swiller expressed frustrations on witnessing so many avoidable deaths, but said there must be a long-term solution, not a quick fix. He now lives in Cold Spring, N.Y., works as a social worker in a Brooklyn hospice center and plans to write a nonfiction book about his experiences there. Although he can hear much better now, he misses the quiet and being alone with his thoughts.

"With all the noise in this world, compassion can get lost," he said.

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