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Building bridges with books

Born in the Eastern Cape, Sonwabiso Ngcowa is an emergent young author. Passionate about literature and social development, he uses writing and stories to uplift those around him. In this article, Ngcowa explores how reading and books bridge a divide between all cultures:

With life being as busy as it is in the modern world, our opportunities to meet new people and connect with each other are diminishing. And, sadly, when the chance does arise, many people automatically judge themselves as being the better human being. Very few leap forth and introduce themselves as equals.

For sure, we may look different from each other and have different lifestyles, but under our skins we are all the same. If at no other time, this is most obvious at our birth. Yes, our lives take different trajectories, and we grow up using different languages, having different religions, cultures, sexualities, genders etc. but all of these are equally beautiful. Unfortunately though, people are threatened by difference and they fight it.

Luckily, if people who grew up differently meet at the crossroads, and even if it seems as if there is nothing to unite them, I know that books can. Books can show us how, even in war, not everybody wants to be there, and how even in mob ‘justice’, not everybody wants to throw a stone. They can show us how some people’s childhoods have been stolen, and they can even show us how a woman who sits, while she struggles with AIDS, does not go to the clinic because she is scared and fears social stigma. In this way, books open our minds and nudge us towards empathy.

I grew up in the small village of Mpozisa, Alice, in the Eastern Cape. The place is painfully deprived of books. So, how did I become a writer? Fortunately, books and stories were brought closer to me through radio drama and the tales we shared around the fire, and, in 2013, I finished my first book, In Search of Happiness. The story is a coming-of-age novel about a young girl who discovers her sexuality and befriends a foreign national, quickly leading her to face issues of homophobia and xenophobia.

I may not be gay, or considered ikwirikwiri, that derogatory term taken to mean a black foreigner in South Africa, but through writing I choose to speak out about human rights. After years of trying to find my voice and fighting with my own fears of being labelled uncool, I put pen to paper, and, writing honestly, felt good knowing that I am challenging small-town and insular beliefs.

I urge you to join me, and most modestly, without forcing it on anybody, read a book about a culture you do not know, a religion that is not yours, or a sexuality that falls at a different place on the continuum to your own and we may start to make it our business to stand for and protect the human dignity of all. At contact, and through books, we learn to celebrate our differences and embrace our sameness and we can start developing this with our children, right from birth, by reading and sharing stories with them – helping them to step into someone else’s shoes.

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