Listen, if at all, to silence

The African continent is shaped like a giant ear.

Photocred: KLAnderson

The African continent is shaped like a giant ear. I have often wondered if there is something to be learned from this geographical fact, a reminder, perhaps, that Africa reveals its secrets only to those who listen.

-Thomas Bass, Camping with the Prince and Other Tales of Science in Africa

The voice of the ear is one of the stories that sparked my curiosity of language. Language has been such a big part of my life as a Writing and Rhetoric major, an aspiring writer, and a Publishing Professional, but I hadn’t seen language as a significant and valuable lens to view the complexities of issues that matter to me until I went to Africa. The voice of the others, the marginalized or oppressed words of others, were left out of the mainstream cannons of the literature and scholarly works that I read in high school. However, my writing experiences at college valued the examination of language in order to understand the texts written by non-mainstream individuals and critique the dominant discourses that contribute to the exercise of power and knowledge.

The variety of African voices inform and complicate mainstream, Western texts. The elephant ear represents the story of Africa, as I have experienced it. During my travels to South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Kenya, I was drawn to topical conversations of social justice, peace and war, politics, and human rights . Whether it was sitting shotgun with the cab driver in Mozambique or bumping into a student at the grocery store in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, I constantly absorbed the stories of Africans because I was so curious and infatuated with what I didn’t know and what I could try to understand.

Not until I was able to really listen for the sake of listening to the stories of Africans could I understand the complex interface of culture and change that Africa faces as a society. My story of discovering Africa through spending time interviewing various stakeholders in Turkana, Kenya is just one of the many experiences that reflects the importance of spending time speaking less and listening more. Without the compassion and willingness to listen and therefore understand the daily struggles of communities in Africa, I would have little knowledge of the voices that aren’t being heard in conversations about social issues in Africa today.


Listening is not just the ability to hear correctly what someone is saying into your ears. Listening entails a great deal of commitment, responsibility, and respect. Listening can be challenging, and often requires re-visiting and clarification. When reading, writing, or in conversation, listening hard enough to hear the value and purpose of a message is an important lesson to learn in order to understand others. When you don’t interrupt, don’t jump in when someone is speaking, you manage to help them struggle through what they’re saying. Clarity blossoms and conformity is shed. When reading, this may entail digging deeper into the text, understanding what the larger message is, or how the most insignificant passage influences the rest of the text. Listening with the intent of understanding, and not listening with the intent of responding opens the conversation up to be more than just an on-going dialogue. When we really listen to each other it creates a space for social action, for change, and for understanding- the ingredient most left out of change and social action. Understanding is what allows constructive, ethical action to take place, and provides opportunities for learning about other people and cultures.

Nicole Krauss puts it well in her novel, History of Love, when she explores the concept of “string and cup” telephones. Krauss explains that as the world got bigger, there wasn’t enough string to keep what people were saying from falling into the vastness that makes up the earth. Krauss writes in History of Love: “Sometimes no length of string is long enough to say the thing that needs to be said. In such cases all the string can do, in whatever its form, is conduct a person’s silence.” This quote emphasizes the idea that as the world has gotten larger, and distance has grown between communities, the gap silenced the voices. Yet. The power of silence never broke the strings.

We must try and remember the experience of holding a shell up to one’s ear and listening to the sweet nothingness roaring around in the hollow of the shell.

This ancient form of expression, the utterances from the shell, mirrors my understanding of silences as having form, regardless of even a single word being spoken.

The curiosity of language is important for both a writer and traveler in order to learn to explore and engage with the mystery of human nature. So many words get lost, and if I am able to gather them like flowers in a vase, and present them in their present form, I think writing can be a valuable tool for empowerment and expressing the words of others. I hope to sew together the words of others that unraveled when the world got too big to be held together by string and cup telephones.