Books

Compelling local reads have lessons for young and old

Pat Schwartz

Pat Schwartz reviews 'In Search of Happiness' by Sonwabiso Ngcowa and 'May I Have This Dance' by Connie Manse Ngcaba.

'In Search of Happiness' tells the story of 15-year-old Nana.

IN SEARCH OF HAPPINESS by Sonwabiso Ngcowa (Face2Face)

MAY I HAVE THIS DANCE by Connie Manse Ngcaba (Face2Face)

The innovative bibliophiles at Cover2Cover books have produced two very different works under the imprint Face2Face.

Sonwabiso Ngcowa’s novel In Search of Happiness, aimed at young adult readers, tells the story of 15-year-old Nana. After growing up in the care of her grandmother in a rural Eastern Cape village, she moves to Cape Town’s bustling Masiphumelele township to join her parents and older sister. Here she encounters a world of prejudice, jealousy and brutality. But she also encounters love – a love she could never have imagined.

Ngcowa writes from some personal experience – he too came from an Eastern Cape village and grew up in Masiphumelele. But that’s where the resemblance between him and his protagonist ends. Ngcowa is a young man who has somehow managed to get under the skin of a teenage girl blooming into early womanhood, who is confused by emotions she does not properly understand.

In this brief, empathetic novel he introduces and deals with many of the themes that trouble South Africans today – among them xenophobia, homophobia and the unimaginable evil of “corrective rape”. There are lessons in it for all of us.

May I Have This Dance is the inspirational autobiography of a remarkable woman – wife and mother, community worker, political activist and role model. She is Connie Manse Ngcaba, who finished writing the book at the age of 84.

“I knew I had to write this book as a way to examine our current society in the hopes that we can learn to be resilient, embrace the change and yet constantly affirm ourselves as people,” she writes in her foreword.

And what a story she has to tell. Her early childhood was on a smallholding farmed by her father in the Eastern Cape. She was placed in the care of her maternal aunt after the death of her father and the departure of her mother to seek work in Johannesburg.

Success at primary school resulted in admission to the prestigious Healdtown High and Training College in Fort Beaufort. After school, she took up a career in nursing and married her ballroom dancing teacher (hence the title of the book), the man she would love and treasure throughout a 60-year marriage, and the birth and raising of six children.

And that might have been enough for a full and satisfying life, had a social conscience not propelled her into community work that brought her into conflict with the apartheid government and resulted in a year of detention without trial at the age of 57.

Ngcaba’s story is a tale of courage and commitment to the broader community, but, more importantly, it is a tale of the importance of family and the shaping of family values. In a section titled Life Lessons she invites her readers to explore a variety of issues from tribalism to traditions and rituals, from controlling anger and frustration to creating a legacy. And, finally, she proposes a family constitution as “a compass for the future”.

In a world in which so many families are increasingly dysfunctional, in which the struggle for mere survival, let alone harmony with humanity, seems to so many to be an increasingly overwhelming challenge, Ngcaba’s story is inspirational – would that her words could reach way beyond the covers of this quiet little book.

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