The Unheard A Memoir of Deafness and Africa

Josh Swiller

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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"These are hearing aids. They take the sounds of the world and amplify them." Josh Swiller recited this speech to himself on the day he arrived in Mununga, a dusty village on the shores of Lake Mweru. Deaf since a young age, Swiller spent his formative years in frustrated limbo on the sidelines of the hearing world. His family encouraged him to use lipreading and the strident approximations of hearing aids to blend in, but it didn't work. After college, he broke from the well-trodden path and set out to find a place so far removed that his deafness would become irrelevant.

That place turned out to be Zambia, where Swiller worked as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years. There he encountered a world where violence, disease, and poverty were the mundane facts of life. But despite the culture shock, Swiller finally commanded attention—everyone always listened carefully to the white man, even if they didn't always follow his instruction. Spending his days working in the health clinic with Augustine Jere, a chubby, world-weary chess aficionado and a steadfast friend, Swiller had finally found, he believed, a place where his deafness didn't interfere, a place he could call home. Until, that is, a violent happening rattled those newfound convictions.

The Unheard is at once a poignant account of friendship through adversity, a hilarious comedy of errors, and a gripping narrative of escalating violence.


Praise for The Unheard

"Swiller doesn't deceive either himself or us about the utility of his work . . . His appealing, intelligent narrative serves both as a coming of age story and as a penetrating light into one corner of a tormented continent."—Juliet Wittman, The Washington Post

"Josh Swiller had a reasonably happy childhood, one of several boys in a bog and by all accounts prosperous New York family. He went to Yale, joined the Peace Corps and was sent to a godforsaken place in northern Zambia, near the border with eastern Congo, itself one of the most godforsaken placed on Earth. After some superficial training, he was assigned to help the locals dig and manage wells . . . The Peace Corps has a certain built-in propensity to set up conditions for rackets of the kind Mr. Swiller observed and now described with admirable candor. Indeed, he has written an extraordinarily honest, swiftly paced, powerful book, filled with sharp observations on the realities of life in this sad corner of Zambia and the awkward, and at times bitterly hilarious, failure of East and West (or West and South) to understand each other. Though it is worth noting, because he sees it very clearly, that notwithstanding such cultural gulfs, the primary problem when things fell apart was not the gulfs but human dishonestly . . . Mr. Swiller is a fine writer, terse and funny, at once reserved and revealing . . . The narrative is compelling . . . The wasteful Peace Corps, sad northern Zambia, a spirited and brave if callow youth—all compelling, and it's well we know them."—Roger Kaplan, The Washington Times

"Swiller, a young man tired of living on the margins because if his deafness (even with the help of hearing aids), joined the Peace Corps and went to Zambia for two years. As a white man, he was given an authority he had never had back in the States. Working in a health clinic, he experienced the full force of Africa's violence, disease and poverty. Several ingredients are crucial in a memoir like this: humor, the ability to see enough details to make the scene come alive and a dispassionate compassion. Swiller has them all."—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

"His appealing, intelligent narrative severs both as a coming of age story and as a penetrating light into one corner of a tormented continent."—Juliet Wittman, World magazine

"I thought I knew about the Peace Corps until I read Josh Swiller's hilarious, troubling, and at times frightening recreation of his time in Zambia. His wit spares no one—least of all himself—and his generosity of spirit encompasses nearly everyone. His experiences in Africa transformed him, and this book will transform readers."—Laurence Bergreen, author of Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe

"I was riveted by this book from page one. Swiller shouldn't have lived to tell this tale, much less been sent to a village in deepest Africa that the locals called 'Gomorrah.' But he did, and he's returned with something priceless: a story suffused with humor and love about a place where corruption and death were regular visitors. Swiller hears the rhythms of language and life far better than most people with two normal ears."—Michael Chorost, author of Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human

"Unheard takes readers into several different worlds: a young deaf man's individualized perceptions, as well as the violence and poverty of a remote African village. It questions the usefulness of outsiders lending a hand to Third World cultures and is a heartfelt description of friendship and personal growth. The prologue describes Swiller and a friend cowering on the living room floor in the dark, armed with nail-encrusted two-by-fours and fighting for their lives. Chapter one, ‘First day,' flashes back to the beginning of the author's journey, when he joined the Peace Corps to become ‘an ambassador' to people who may never have seen or met a person from outside their community. His mission was to encourage the locals of Mununga, a village on the shores of Lake Mweru, Zambia to dig wells and help improve their sanitation and health. Swiller attempted to follow the guidelines provided in his training, but soon discovered that reality and idealism were at odds. As his story progresses, corruption, dishonest village leaders, and a culture he didn't entirely understand all play a part in his coming to terms with his deafness and his understanding of who he was and just what he intended to do with his life. Swiller's experiences come to life in a way that teens can and will hear, however metaphorically."—Joanne Ligamari, Rio Linda District, Sacramento, California, School Library Journal

"A former Peace Corps volunteer recalls his battles with deafness, bureaucracy, sex, violence and hopelessness during his mid-1990s tour in Zambia . . . He begins near the end, holed up in the dark at the home of his best friend Jere, both of them feebly armed, while on the other side of the door a mob of angry villagers led by a baddie named Boniface threatened to kill them . . . resolution comes 200 pages later, but first Swiller cuts away to fill in background about his lifelong struggles with deafness, his desultory pathway through high school, Yale and Gallaudet and his decision to join the Peace Corps. He went to Zambia to help the villagers in Mununga dig wells, but the local mores and politics were almost too much to cope with, particularly for someone who had to read lips to supplement his powerful hearing aids."—Kirkus Reviews

"Although doctors diagnosed Swiller's deafness early enough to fit him with hearing aids, the young man from Mantattan's Upper West Side still felt different. As a young adult he drifted from college to college, job to job, relationship to relationship, never quite finding what he was looking for: a place beyond deafness. He found that place in the mid-1990s, when the Peace Corps posted him to a remote corner of Zambia. During his two-year stint working in a run-down health clinic in a rural village, he fought for irrigation projects and better AIDS facilities. He befriended a young local who played chess and provided constant counsel in the ways the young white American could—and did—run afoul of local tribesmen (and women) and their age-old ways. Deafness would have provided a unique sensory filter for anyone, yet while Swiller may have his particular aural capabilities, he also has literary talents—an eye, a voice and a narrative talent—in abundance. A story in any other Peace Corps volunteer's hands might have been humdrum, but in Swiller's becomes intensified, like the rigors of day-to-day Zambian life, through deprivation."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

The Unheard

part one
Akashi ushilala, bakakumbwa insonshi ne mitenge.

The village in which you do not sleep is admired for its roofing.
First Day
A month after arriving in Zambia, about halfway...

Read the full excerpt


  • Josh Swiller

  • A graduate of Yale University, Josh Swiller has had a wide variety of careers: forest ranger, carpenter, slipper salesman, raw food chef, Zen monk, journalist, and teacher, among other things. In August 2005, he had successful surgery for a cochlear implant and partially recovered his hearing. Swiller now speaks on issues facing mainstreamed deaf individuals, and works at a hospice in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives.

  • Josh Swiller


    Josh Swiller

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