Book Excerpt

The Unheard

A Memoir of Deafness and Africa

Josh Swiller

Henry Holt and Co.


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 through my Peace Corps training, I visited Mununga for the first time. I traveled north for two days from the city of Kabwe, the training site, to where the pavement ended at a lake town called Kashikishi; there, I caught a pickup that made its way up a dirt road, wracked and cratered like it had been cleared by dinosaurs. Villages, forests, marshes, and more villages passed by, giving way to glimpses of Lake Mweru, a giant kidney bean of water stretching to the western horizon. After three hours of this, at the crest of a large hill, a thick log rested in the road--a military checkpoint. A couple of soldiers got up from beneath a mango tree, collected a toll from the driver, and kicked the log out of the way. The road descended into the broad Mununga River valley, crossed a one-lane bridge, and suddenly we came upon the town. There was nothing to prepare you for it: after forty miles of scattered villages and blasted road, the valley was full of activity.
A market spread out in all directions from the bus stop. It thronged with merchants, fish sellers, dealers of various sundries and vegetables, and toutboys--rambunctious, ropy-muscled young toughs who bullied travelers on and off of vehicles for tips. People were everywhere, walking, running, laughing, flirting, staggering,hauling packages on their heads, toting fish, birds, children. Children played kung fu tag. Teenage cigarette vendors sat in the sun without a drop of shade and sold one cig and one match at a time. Goats scavenged as men drove them along with sticks. When I hopped off the truck, all the commotion instantly stopped. A thousand pairs of eyes simultaneously turned and stared.
"Remember," Administration had said to us Peace Corps volunteers as we prepared for this inaugural visit to our villages, "most of these people, the vast majority, have never seen a non-Zambian before. Many have never even met someone from another tribe. You're going to be the first look they'll have at an American. You're going to be ambassadors. You're going to influence how a lot of people see the United States and the world."
Cool, an ambassador. On the trip north, I had daydreams of heroic rescues and grateful young maidens. Donning a black cowboy hat, I would oversee Great Works of Development while learning Great Lessons about Humanity. "We are all one people," I would write back home, "black or white, hearing or deaf. One family." But the looks on the faces in the vast market crowd read less like gratefulness and camaraderie and more like abject shock; it was like a pterodactyl had just landed in their midst and they were trying to decide whether to back away slowly or run like mad.
I stood in the road for fifteen minutes. Then I caught the next pickup out of town.

A MONTH AFTER THAT I CAME BACK TO MUNUNGA FOR GOOD. Administration dropped me off in front of a blue and yellow shack with my clothes, a new mattress, a two-year supply of hearing aid batteries, and a loaf of fresh bread. Instantly, like they had been waiting all week just for my arrival, dozens of children ran to watch me unload. It was a beautiful day, the sky a gauzy, cloudless blue.
"This is it," Administration said to me, peering at the kids and shack from behind the steering wheel of his Land Cruiser."Now, promise me you'll watch out for river snails. They live in freshwater, even clean-looking water like this river. You can't see their larvae and once they get in your skin, they burrow through your bladder and then you pee blood for the rest of your life."
"Ok. I'll look out for them," I said.
"Shit so what?"
"Schistosomiasis. That's what the snail is called. The one that messes up your bladder."
"So don't go in the river?"
"No, I'm not saying that," Administration said, holding up his hands in a gesture of innocence. "I'm not allowed to tell you what to do. This is a free country. You might not get it."
On an earlier expedition, Administration had chosen Mununga as a site for a volunteer solely because of the river--it was that beautiful. In retrospect, he probably could have done more research. He was from Cincinnati and didn't know any of the history of the area, didn't know about its reputation for violence, didn't know that urban Zambians, even the ones embracing the global economy and technological age head-on, feared Mununga. "Oooh, Mr. Joshua," the city folk had said when I had told them during training about my placement. "You are brave to go there."
"Why is it brave?" I asked them, but they shook their heads in that floppy, figure-eight way that could mean anything, and wouldn't say.

After Administration drove off I faced the village children. They stared at me from a safe distance. We watched each other like that for a good five minutes before I broke the ice by chucking pebbles at them. They laughed and threw them back. A long, tin-roofed building, easily the biggest building as far as I could see, was built into the hill behind them, so with nothing better to do, after making friends I put my bags away and headed over for a look around. The boys trailed along. The first room I looked into was a small officewith a large desk in the middle. The walls were white, faded, with cobwebs shading the corners. A chubby round-faced man who looked to be in his early thirties sat in a shaft of sunlight, gazing at a chessboard on the desk. He held a beer in his right hand, a handkerchief in his left, wore a wrinkle-free T-shirt that read BOB'S STORES. With the handkerchief hand, he jabbed the air over the board, perhaps planning his next move.
He jumped up when I stuck my head in. "Hey! You are the white man who will dig us wells," he exclaimed.
"Yes," I said. "How'd you guess?"
He laughed, throwing back his head. Then just as suddenly he turned serious. "But you are alone? They only sent one?"
"Only one."
"Why only one? Mununga needs more than one."
I didn't know how to answer that. I introduced myself. He told me his name, Augustine Jere and that he was the clinic officer, and shook my hand in both of his.
I motioned to the board. "Who are you playing?"
"I'm playing with myself," Jere said. "Do you play?"
"No. But I could learn to."
He nodded, wiped his face with his handkerchief. It was an open face with thoughtful eyes, a swollen nose, and a ready smile--a trustworthy face. "You could," he said. "White men are very smart."
"No more than anyone else."
"But you invented penicillin. And automobiles. And airplanes."
"Well, don't forget nuclear weapons. And acid rain. And Pet Rocks."
He gave a thumbs-up. "Yes. Those, too. Very impressive. Maybe that's why they only send one. Yes, I think one is enough. Even for Mununga."
Enough for what, I wondered, but before I could ask, Jere leaned over the side of the desk and took two beers out of a small cooler, handing me one, gesturing for me to sit down. The coolerwas for vaccinations, he said with a nod, but as they were out of those and had been out for a week, might as well use it to keep the beer cold. It has always been my way to plunge into new situations headfirst, and after a little more small talk, I started telling Jere about wells. As he had declared, wells were what I was there for, but, I explained, when they were dug, it wouldn't be by me--the villagers would do the digging and the villagers would be in charge of everything. That was the Peace Corps' philosophy--they called it sustainable development.
Jere wasn't very impressed. "Can't you just drill a borehole?" he asked. "Those take two, three days. And they go very deep."
"We could," I said, "but no one learns anything when you dig a borehole. A truck comes, drills, leaves. What is the community going to do if the borehole breaks? Or if they need another well? Wait around for another volunteer to show up? No, the goal is to teach the community how to take care of itself."
This all sounded good and was based on decades of trial and error, but I had little idea how to go about putting it into practice. I did get some well construction experience during training, but that was just a single day digging a hole in a dirt field and mixing cement in a wheelbarrow. Then, to learn the community organization skills we'd need, the other volunteers and I practiced splitting up hypothetical jobs while eating vanilla wafers. You dig. I'll mix. He'll cook lunch. What that had to do with organizing communities wasn't really clear to any of us. But I didn't know the depths of my ignorance yet, and could never have imagined the consequences of going in blind. Community empowerment, sustainability, and personal responsibility--that, I told Mr. Jere, was all we needed to dig the wells.
"Sounds good," he said with a smile, but I wasn't sure if he believed it. He seemed eager to get off the subject.
We finished our beers, put back another round, then Jere called out and a skinny boy with an overbite appeared, took some kwacha--the Zambian currency--and ran off to get more. Wedrank those as well. Evening came and filled the sky with such reds and oranges it was like the valley had been slipped inside a sliced papaya. The smells of the day--sweat, cocoa butter, kerosene, and fish lying in the sun--were swept away by the evening breeze. I was getting buzzed.
"Let me show you the clinic," Jere said. He stood up and whacked his kneecap on the desk. He groaned. "That hurt."

Jere's office, another office, three treatment rooms, and a storeroom opened off the clinic's long outdoor hallway. A couple of yards away were two ramshackle buildings: one was a ward for infectious diseases and one was for AIDS. A film of dust coated every floor of the facility despite the efforts of a cheerful elderly volunteer, bent over and sweeping with a handful of reeds. Jere introduced me to Mr. Mulwanda, the inpatient clinician, a bald and sleepy man in his forties who spoke very slowly. Whenever Mulwanda smiled, frowned, thought, or talked, his eyes crinkled up and disappeared.
There were four things I remember most clearly about that first tour of the clinic. First: the pregnant women who lay on the hallway floor waiting for their water to break. Clutching sleeping infants and beset by flies, they timidly shrank away as we approached. They were children, most of these mothers, much younger than I was (I was twenty-three), but they seemed already worn down by their lives.
The second thing: a poster on a door highlighting a newspaper article that claimed AIDS originated from top-secret malaria tests carried out by the United States in the early eighties in Haiti, East Africa, and North America's homosexual population.
"You don't really believe that, do you?" I asked Jere.
"Of course I do," he responded. "Everyone knows about this."
Third thing: the bats. They nested on the ceiling beams of every room, dark gray blobs like dead lanterns covered with hair.
"Should those be there?" I asked.
"Yes, they eat mosquitoes," Jere said.
"But what about rabies?"
"Oh, that's always fatal."
The fourth thing: Jere and I exited the last treatment room to find a barrel-chested man in his mid-fifties standing in the hallway, his chin tilted so high in the air that at first I thought he was a patient with a sprained neck. This was Boniface.
"Ba Jere," he said, in a remarkably loud and deep voice.
"Mr. Boniface," Jere replied, eyes lowered, at once deferential. "This is our Peace Corps volunteer, Mr. Josh. He has finally arrived."
"Welcome," Boniface said to me, in English.
"Pleased to meet you," I said.
He stared at me from over his wide cheekbones. "You are from America. Come with me." And before I knew what was happening, this Mr. Boniface was leading me by the hand down the stairs and down the hill toward the river, around huts and banana groves, past scores of startled villagers--quite a few of whom ran into their huts when they saw me--to a large hut distinguished by a rusty sheet-metal roof; every other hut we passed had a thatch roof made of straw and mud.
Boniface opened the door, motioned for me to enter, sat me on a chair, and a young woman brought a glass of water that tasted like sand. It was dark; when my eyes adjusted, I saw that the room was large and well furnished--chairs, bamboo mats, a couch, a table, and three young faces peering at me from behind a doorway. Boniface took a seat, sped through--in English--a long list of greetings and salutations and blessings on our health and ancestors, and then told me, again in English, without prompting or pause, the story of his life.
He was born in Mununga way back before there was even a bridge over the river and you had to cross by canoe, or, in the dry season, by hopping from rock to rock. Then he had gone to schoolin Lusaka, learned English, served in the army, swung a pickax in a copper mine. Twenty years later he had returned to the village with only his clothes and his smarts and now he owned two shops at the market, both with tin roofs, and had three wives.
I missed a lot of what he said and was stunned by the speed of this introduction, but I grew excited as it dawned on me that I'd fulfilled one of the Peace Corps' basic goals. "Find the village leaders," they had instructed us in community development class--and here I'd found one, no looking.
"Congratulations on your successes, Mr. Boniface," I said when he finished his story. He had talked for forty-five minutes straight, his chin pointed at the top of my head the entire time like the bow of an aircraft carrier.
"Thank you," he replied. "Now tell me, you have come to my village to dig wells?"
"Yes, exactly. To dig wells."
He nodded. "Mr. Joshua, there is no chief in our village. Our chief died and we are waiting for our next chief. With no chief the people look to me for leadership. I give them leadership. The people listen to me and do what I tell them. If I tell them to work, they work. If I tell them to dig, they dig. If I tell them not to dig, they do not dig. So, what do you want me to tell them?"
Was this a trick question? "To dig?" I asked.
"No. It is not so simple. You will be digging very deep for water right? You won't be working alone?"
"No," I said.
"Yes." He smiled as if he had just settled an obvious point.
"What?" I wasn't fazed; I often had conversations like this. It was a common effect of trying to follow rapid speech with lipreading and hearing aids. Basically, with aids you're constantly translating every line of language into itself--a concept that always makesme think of the interpreters in glass-walled and soundproofed rooms at the UN, the long rows of them with their dark suits and earpieces. What power these interpreters have! They could start a war with a few words here and there. But what if they miss a phrase? Maybe they just pretend they heard and make something up. That's what I usually did.
Boniface leaned forward, gazing intensely in my eyes. "Mr. Joshua, you need workers, good workers. I have them. I think you and I are vital to each other. So if I organize your workers, what will you do for me? How will we work together?" He sat back, letting his words sink in. When I didn't say anything he added, "Everyone knows white men have money and my roof is old, my wife is sick, and my children are hungry. We can work together."
I realized then what he wanted, and felt foolish for not catching on earlier. Boniface just gave off that vibe like he had an agenda and he'd already figured out your place in it.
"Mr. Boniface, I can't do anything for you except bring you clean water," I said. "That's how community development works. There's no money involved. But clean water's important. It will save many lives. People will work for free."
"Are you sure?"
"No. Yes. What are you asking me for?"
"An agreement."
"An agreement?" I repeated, and then I went further--too far. I often did; I couldn't help myself--especially when dealing with someone who had, knowingly or not, taken advantage of my inability to hear. "You mean like a bribe? You want a bribe. I can't believe it."
"No, I do not."
He looked uncomfortable. I couldn't stop myself.
"Yes, you do. Unbelievable. I just got here."
Boniface stood up from his chair and walked toward the door. "It was nice to meet you, Mr. Joshua," he said. "I think you should leave."JERE HAD INVITED ME OVER FOR DINNER THAT EVENING, FOR WHICH I was deeply grateful because I had no idea where to eat and I was drained from an entire day of being a space alien, all the villagers staring and pointing, freezing to the spot or scrambling off the path when I passed. Jere never did that. He treated me warmly from the first moment and made no assumptions.
Now it was night and we were sitting in his insaka, a kind of thatch gazebo. The only light came from a kerosene lantern and the distant stars. While his wife cleared up the bowls from the meal Jere produced a bottle of banana wine, and I peppered him with questions.
"Who is Boniface?" I asked.
"He's a very powerful man," Jere said.
"Like a chief?" I offered. "He kept saying that."
"Not exactly." He swallowed a glass of wine. "When you were at his house you didn't say anything that might upset him, did you?" he asked.
"No," I lied. "Of course not."
"I wouldn't do that."
"But supposing I did, why would it matter?"
Jere looked around to make sure we were alone. He was, I learned later, from a different tribe, the Nyanja, who lived mainly in southeastern Zambia. Mununga, up near Zaire, was Bemba tribe. Because this wasn't Jere's home area, he had to be careful with what he said.
Then he told me a story that chilled my bones, one that in my nineteen months in the village was never far from my mind. The most powerful ndoshi--witch doctors--in the entire country lived in Mununga, he said. Shopkeepers traveled here from as far away as Zimbabwe, a three-day bus journey each way, to obtain aninfallible talisman for the success of their stores. They came because--and here Jere chuckled uncomfortably--the talisman they needed was the dried heart of a teenage boy.
"A dried heart?" I interrupted. "No way."
It was true, Jere insisted. Mununga ndoshi had the ability to reach right into a chest and pull out business success, still beating. The heart-deprived teenagers were buried or abandoned out in the bush. The ndoshi dried the hearts in the sun with special herbs found in the forests and the businessmen took them back to the cities and placed them in altars above the front entrances to their stores, where, supposedly, they attracted customers like tropical ulcers attract flies.
It was a striking story and yet I couldn't tell if I was supposed to believe it or not. It sounded too much like Indiana Jones.
"Things like that, Ba Josh," Jere continued, "is why they call this place Gomorrah. That's why you have to be careful with what you say."
I didn't hear him right. "This place is going to rah?"
"It's Gomorrah."
"You don't like Gomorrah? Fine, it's Sodom."
I felt like I was still missing something. "So wait, you're saying Boniface is ndoshi? He's going to freeze-dry my heart if I hurt his feelings?"
Jere shook his head. "I'm pretty sure witchcraft doesn't work on white people. I just want you to be aware."
"Of what? Aware of what? He seemed kind of like a jerk, to be honest."
"He can make things difficult. He can stop people from helping you."
I thought about this. Those early days in the village I wanted to get as much done as possible, save as many lives as I could and make a difference and heal the world and so on, so I mostly had wells on my mind; and also, beyond bringing help to others, I wasfocused on a personal quest to find some help of my own. So I didn't really consider that Jere meant my own life could be in danger. But maybe he didn't either.
"So how do I get people to dig?" I asked.
Jere closed his eyes for a minute, rubbed his stomach.
"Carefully," he said.
Copyright © 2007 by Josh Swiller