Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Josh Swiller (page 3)
 Talking with
Josh Swiller
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After Yale, you went into the Peace Corps. Why?

Immediately after finishing college I wanted to learn about the deaf community so I spent four months learning sign language at Gallaudet, the National University for the Deaf. Then I went to work in the redwoods of Northern California as a forest ranger for a year. That was a tough, intense job — we often set up camp in the middle of the woods and worked from dawn to dusk rehabilitating streams and trails, planting trees, and fighting fires. Amazing forests, amazing people, and you had the satisfaction of working until you had nothing left, but still I felt lost. I still struggled so much with daily communication. My impulse was to find something even more intense than rangering and I don’t think my family was surprised when I told them I had applied to Peace Corps. It pretty much fit the path I was on.

Were questions raised by the Peace Corps about your deafness in the application process?

A few. But I could usually understand speech quite well in one-on-one situations like interviews, so I imagine it didn't seem like a big deal.

Once in Zambia, what were some of the signs that this might be the place past deafness that you had been searching for? Were any of the other Volunteers on similar quests?

To be honest, from the very first day of training I felt I was on to something. We were in a fairly large, well-developed city, but not a single home had a phone in it. That made me happy — phones are obviously very difficult for the deaf. And more than that, as I said, the way Zambians spoke was so easy to understand — slowly, clearly, without talking over each other and they looked you directly in the eye. That’s a lot less common here in the States than it should be. When we finished training and got out to our placements, I was able to quickly form satisfying connections with the people from my village.
     One thing I find interesting is that of the eight Volunteers in Zambia One who made it through two years, each one seemed to have an experience that seemed like a direct reflection of their personality. The mellow guy found Zambia very mellow. The go-getter found it a happening place. The ladies’ man found it full of beautiful and willing ladies. I wonder what that says about me . . .

Tell us about being deaf in Mununga. How did you relate to this world?
As I said, I found it easy to acclimate to the village and I think deafness was the main reason for this. People distinguish themselves and others as black, white, African, Jewish, American, Chinese etc, but deafness is a much more powerful distinction than any of these ethnicities and races, and makes them seem much less important than they might otherwise. It makes them seem artificial really, and once they’re eliminated, what’s left is people trying to get along. However, as I found out the hard way, feeling like you have a good connection and understanding village customs are two completely different things.
ET= (early terminate) to drop out of the Peace Corps before one's 2-year commitment is completed. Did you ever think of ETing as others did in your project?
Not really. I was stubborn and I wasn’t going to give up easily. And actually, for most of my stay, the hardest part actually wasn’t violence, but it was being so ineffectual. There was so much disease and suffering in Mununga and next to nothing that I could do about it. I felt like I’d been sent to fight a forest fire with a spray bottle.
     Not until the very end of my stay did I feel personally threatened, and when that happened, I got the hell out of town — but not before some genuinely terrifying moments.
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