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Surviving Deafness and Deprivation in Remote Africa

Sep 15, 2007 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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As a deaf child growing up in Manhattan, Josh Swiller would often take out his frustration with the hearing world on his little brother.

But when he traveled to Zambia to work for the Peace Corps in the mid-1990s, his combative style got him in trouble —ultimately threatening his life. In Zambia he also found a world where his deafness wasn't central to his identity.

In his poignant work The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa, readers experience Africa through the eyes and ears of a man who tries to reconcile his deafness in a foreign culture. Surrounded by universal poverty and disease, Swiller's disability almost becomes irrelevant as he treats sick babies and fights for irrigation projects and better AIDS facilities.

When he encounters a remote school for deaf children in Zambia, he realizes the deaf world he experienced growing up was light-years from the students he sees "pushed to a corner." When Swiller offers to teach the children — mentioning to the school administrator that he's deaf — the man laughs disbelievingly, saying that deaf children can't be taught.

Swiller also finds a friend for life in Augustine Jere, a chess player and a steadfast friend who sticks with Swiller even when violence threatens both of their lives. Together they forge a friendship through adversity and help the residents of Mununga, a dusty village on the shores of Lake Mweru.

Scott Simon spoke with Swiller about his time in Africa and the cochlear implants that ultimately changed his life in 2005.

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