I’m a Jewish boy from the Upper West Side by way of Scarsdale. Completely deaf since age four, I relied on hearing aids and lip-reading to gain a fraction of spoken conversation. A few people were intelligible—newscasters and screaming basketball coaches, mostly. But friends, teachers, hot girls in bars—were not. Exhausted from the struggle to understand them, I decided to find a place so far away from everything that deafness didn’t matter anymore.
And I found that place: Mununga, a large village in Zambia, Africa, a day’s travel from phones, electricity and toilets. Out there, to the villagers, my white skin was more astonishing than deafness. It took me about six months to realize this. After that it only took me about six glasses of banana wine to realize that the way to commemorate this freedom was to take a village girl to bed.
This was bad judgment.
Her name was Alice. Once inside my thatch roof hut, she took hold of her blouse and pulled it down to her waist. Her breasts were like Zulu warriors. I gaped; she grabbed my wrist and pulled me underneath the mosquito net and onto the bed.
This is it, I thought, the culmination of all I’d sought—the transcendence of categories: no deaf and hearing, no white and black, no yid and not yid, and I had a condom, so no worries.
Then there was a pounding on the door. Alice ran away.
In the morning, my friend Augustine Jere, who ran the Mununga Health clinic, woke me by kicking the foot of my bed.
“It is time for your judging,” he said.
“My what?” I asked.
Sometimes I don’t hear, sometimes I don’t understand. Sometimes both.
“What?” I said again.
Jere led me down a path past mud huts and banana groves of all sizes, through an acre where all the plants had suddenly died and ghosts were now said to live, and into a part of the village I had never seen before. As always, a group of boys followed a short distance behind me and people froze and stared when I passed. We stopped in front of a large hut with a tin roof and a walled courtyard. A wooden sign above the entrance read, in English: “The Africa Freedom Church, Mr. Jackson Bwalya Presiding.” A tall man with a shaved skull, salt-and-pepper stubble and arms made from steel cables stood in the door. This, I learned, was Mr. Bwalya. He exchanged terse greetings with Jere and me in Bemba, the local language. Then he turned and led us into a small dark room.
After offering us seats, Bwalya folded his arms, cleared his throat and locked his eyes on mine.
“Mr. Peace Corps, White Man, Sir,” he said in clear, deliberate English. “Did you take my daughter last night?”
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure exactly what to say.
“Mr. Peace Corps,” Bwalya continued in a loud voice. “Did you ruin my daughter? Did you ruin my eldest daughter in your house? Did you end her life?”
That worried me. “Is Alice okay?” I asked. “I saw her last night. She came over. Is she all right?”
“Yes! Yes!” Bwalya shouted. He clenched his fists, which made the cables in his arms writhe. “Yes, Mr. Peace Corps! You ruined her! And you will be judged!”
So began my judging.
Phase one was the gathering of evidence and anecdotal proof. Speaking in loud, broken English, Bwalya did a fine impression of a district attorney, albeit one who smelled faintly of cocoa butter soap and kerosene. Did Mr. Peace Corps meet Alice on his porch? Yes, he did. Did Mr. Peace Corps take Alice into his house? Yes, he did. Did he take her into his bedroom? Yes.
“So she’s ruined,” Bwalya summed up with a smile, “Ruined for life.”
My friend Jere was no help at first. “You had Alice in your bed last night?” he whispered.
“Okay, yes,” I admitted, “but not much happened.”
He blushed. “Your maize didn’t grow straight?”
“No, no, it grew straight. Straight like bamboo. It just didn’t get a chance to, um… you know.”
“Ai,” Jere nodded. “Ahh. Ai.”
I hoped some legal strategy was behind his questions. “Why do you ask?”
He shrugged. “Just curious.”
During a break in the trial we went to a bar and drank a couple of
lukewarm beers. Jere explained to me the seriousness of my crime. On the wedding day, the man takes his wife to the bedroom, and immediately after that, old women barge inside and search for blood. If they don’t find any, the bride is sent back to her parents and the groom’s payment is returned. If I had ruined Alice’s virginity, I’d greatly lowered her value.
“But she wasn’t a virgin,” I protested. “I could prove it.”
“Yeah, better not to do that,” Jere said.
Back at the Africa Freedom Church, Mr. Bwalya now held an enormous book the size and shape of a cinderblock in his arms. When I was seated, he brought it over: a Bemba/English Bible. He opened it to a page and pointed.
Deuteronomy 22, I read: “If there is a virgin and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them out of the gate of that city, and stone them to death with stones.”
My heart dropped. Didn’t this happen in the Book of Esther? I racked my brain, ruing the fact that I had napped through most of Hebrew school. I coughed once, twice, stretched it into a coughing fit, stood up and headed for the door. Jere followed close behind me.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“This is messed up,” I whispered. “Bwalya wants to stone me.”
A doubtful look spread across his face; he turned and asked Bwalya a question in Bemba. Bwalya laughed explosively.
“You read the wrong line,” Jere said.
Still laughing, Bwalya handed me the book again. I sat back down. Deuteronomy 22:28: “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her, he may not put her away all his days.”
“Better?” asked Jere.
So they wanted shekels and not my life… “Yeah, much,” I said.
“Mr. Peace Corps,” Bwalya began and, turning to Jere, in passionate Bemba he counted off his demands. Jere translated: “For defiling a virgin and lowering her bridal price, for giving her a baby, for giving her Peace Corps diseases of venereals: the sum of 10 million kwacha.” That’s what Bwalya wanted.
I was stunned. That was 15,000 dollars.
“Tell Bwalya I don’t have 10 million kwacha,” I said to Jere.
Bwalya loudly cleared his throat. “Nine,” he said.
“I don’t have nine.”
“Okay,” Jere leaned over my chair and grasped both my hands in his. “Let me handle this.”
And so all that afternoon and the following morning, I sat quietly on a chair in the middle of the tiny Africa Freedom Church while Jere presented my case to Bwalya. What a friend he was! He never raised his voice. He made sure a smile was never too far away from his lips. Bwalya responded with angry Bemba streams of sound, the cinderblock bible high in his fist. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying so I made up my own dialogue to fit his movements:
“My daughter is ruined! Yes, ruined! The white boy must be punished! I will slice his nuts off and fry them with onions!”
I was helpless and clueless as my own fate was bartered right in front of me by two African villagers according to the logic of the original thinkers of my own tribe. It was absolutely surreal.
Finally, I did the only thing I could do: I turned my hearing aids off. In the silence, sunlight changed from gold to white as it crossed the earthen floor, ant generals marched their conscripts across the mud brick walls and shepherded them into nests and spiders scouted out corners for future development or killed their prey.
In the end, it was resolved that I would pay Mr. Jackson Bwalya, director of the African Freedom Church, 100,000 kwacha for violating his virgin daughter and potentially causing an unwanted pregnancy. I gave him 80,000 that I had hidden under my mattress, saved up for vacation, and promised to pay the rest soon.
When I returned a month and a half later from that vacation, I was not completely surprised to find Alice living with a husband in the small hut across the path. She was pregnant, noticeably so. She patted her tummy and waved.
In that instant everything was absolutely clear.
I ran to the African Freedom Church to demand my money back, but Bwalya and his Bible were gone to the cities, where he was blowing my 80 grand on booze and whores.
Africa—who can tell the proper way to behave? You want to do the right thing, but the right thing always changes. You might be the greatest bush nurse ever and still be raped by a platoon of children playing war. There were beauties like Alice, and then at the clinic, I saw the faces of angels attached to bodies assembled from deflated balloons. Why was I there? To get past deafness—whatever that meant—and to live and to help others to live. But I decided on a new kind of justice right then.
“When Bwalya comes back,” I told Jere, “I’m going to hit him in the head with that fucking Bible.”
And then we heard that while partying hard on my dime, Bwalya was hit by a car and killed. Jere and I looked at each other and laughed. Not an entirely appropriate reaction, but it was too much to believe.
Adapted from the book The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa by Josh Swiller. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company.