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WATCH: Soweto man converts home into library to create love for reading in his community

Published Apr 29, 2022

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by Griffin Shea

Behind an unmarked gate, on a residential street in South Africa's Soweto township, Thami Mazibuko makes his way down a corridor and up a stairwell, all lined with books.

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Here in his childhood home, the 36-year-old has turned the upper level into a bookstore and library, seeded with 30 of his own books, now overflowing with hundreds of donations.

The slender man's face lights up as he rummages through the stacks to find some of the most popular reads -- currently Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" and Sol Plaatje's "Mhudi", the first novel in English by a black South African.

"Books, they put you in other people's shoes," Mazibuko told AFP. "I want people to visit here, and be transported into other communities."

As a child, he can't remember having any books in his home.

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After he finished school, he left Soweto and moved into the formerly white suburbs of Johannesburg, staying with relatives who were artists, with a home full of books.

He developed an insatiable appetite for reading, even bring books into the reggae club where he liked to listen to music.

When he decided to move back home, he brought his growing personal collection with him.

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"Readers who do not have access to books, your old aunties, they are like 'you have books! Can I borrow one?'" he recalled. "And I am like, okay aunty it's fine."

So began the Soweto Book Cafe, officially founded in 2018.

Now, he sells books to those with enough money to buy them. And he offers a membership fee of 50 rand ($3.50) a year for people who want to borrow books -- though in reality, he loans them to almost anyone who asks.

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"That's one of the reasons I started this place, to advance literacy and to provide the community with access to books and information, which is a basic human right," he said.

The Book Cafe also hosts a youth group, called Reading Is Super Cool, with 50 regular members from ages four to 16. Older kids read to younger ones, and Mazibuko teaches them board games like chess and go.

Sindisiwe Zulu, 27, started the book club to help her niece get through school.

"She was failing dismally and I asked her," why.

The reply was that she didn't know how to read: 'I don't understand a thing that is why I am failing.'

"I have a lot of books at home, and I initially started with her and a few friends, and started the book club," Zulu said.

Neighbourhood start-ups like the Book Cafe took on even greater importance during South Africa's stringent Covid lockdown, when public libraries were closed for more than a year.

Small bookshops such as this one proliferate across Johannesburg, usually offering second-hand books, but also a sense of community.

The last major survey of Johannesburg's books scene was completed a decade ago, as part of the World Cities Culture Report, which found the city has 1,020 bookshops -- just five less than Paris, and about 250 more than New York.

Mazibuko likes to focus on African literature, and has hosted book launches and readings on his unassuming residential street.

More importantly, he provides a quiet, safe space for his neighbourhood.

"I come to do my assignments, read and de-stress," said 14-year-old Anele Ndlovu, one of the Soweto Book Cafe's regulars.

"It's where I like to think about what I want in my life."

Her dream is to go into finance, and become a forex trader. So while she's enjoying a Michael Connelly's thriller at the moment, she knows what she'd like to read next: "Books that can teach us how life is, and how markets work."

AFP

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