Reviewed by Christine Herbert (Zambia 2004–06)
I’ve read numerous memoirs by Peace Corps volunteers, and I can honestly say I’ve never read one as unabashedly gritty and truly eye-opening as this one. Unrelenting in its honesty, Josh Swiller’s narrative takes the reader on a tour of discovery: the life of a deaf Peace Corps volunteer serving in Africa.
What can I say about the writing? In short, it is astounding. The narrative drifts between incisive prose, bite-size history lessons, quippy dialogue, sweeping poetry, locker room trash talk and back again with the nimbleness of a flying trapeze artist. Sometimes lilting like a lullaby, sometimes booming like a howler monkey, the words call you to experience his story with all your senses. Every scene is cinematic in scope; within moments of starting each new chapter, the reader’s world inexorably gives way to the intriguing and wholly foreign world of Swiller’s host country: Zambia.
Stationed in Mununga, near the shores of Lake Mweru, Swiller finds himself in a village once known for its tranquility and abundance. The old-timers of the region spin tales of the pastoral paradise of their youth, Mununga alone seemingly unspoiled by the machinations of industry and progress. But even the once plentiful resources eventually become squandered, mainly due to a never-ending influx of refugees fleeing the escalating violence in neighboring Zaire (currently the Democratic Republic of Congo).
Mununga, the land that time forgot, suffers from a complete lack of modern infrastructure: no paved roads, electricity, telephones, or plumbing. More than that, Swiller finds his village in desperate need of the most basic human necessities, such as clean water and access to medicine. But even making strides in these most basic areas of development—building better wells and an improved health clinic—became Sisyphean tasks in the face of local corruption, distrust, and outright swindling.
Peace Corps volunteers, who are meant to be posted in areas free from hostility and political strife, are not equipped to deal with such blatant antagonism. Swiller, by his own admission, does not find himself equal to the task of the diplomacy that Zambian culture requires; he is a straight-talking, straight-shooting man, which lands him in hot water time and again. As a result, Swiller witnesses and experiences violence to a degree he is wholly unprepared for.
Beyond all the strife, there are moments when Swiller paradoxically finds himself truly at home in Mununga. Deafness, rather than a defining characteristic, becomes all but irrelevant in his village life. He feels for the first time he can truly “hear” people, and as a result, discovers a sense of belonging in a way he never felt in his own country.
As part of the first cohort of volunteers to serve in Zambia, there was a steep learning curve on behalf of the Peace Corps/Zambia staff and volunteers in understanding and navigating cultural differences. As a deaf volunteer, Swiller faced unique challenges above and beyond what his non-hearing-impaired cohort encountered. One cannot help but be moved by this writer’s unique perspective, and respect the journey he undertook — not only serving as a volunteer, but by setting the tale down for the rest of humanity to read and learn from.
n.b. — Josh Swiller was the winner of the 2008 Peace Corps Writers Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award for The Unheard.
Reviewer Christine Herbert (Zambia 2004–06) is the author of The Color of the Elephant: Memoir of a Muzungu. Christine is a part-time writer, part-time bodyworker, and full-time space cadet living in the Pacific Northwest. She served as a health educator in Peace Corps/Zambia, and later as a healthcare professional in the USA and abroad. Christine considers her service in the Peace Corps to be the highlight of both her personal and professional life.