SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA (AFP) – Behind an unmarked gate on a residential street in the township of Soweto in South Africa, Thami Mazibuko walks down a hallway and up a stairwell, all lined with books.
Here at his childhood home, the 36-year-old has turned the upper level into a bookstore and library, stocked with 30 of his own books, now overflowing with hundreds of donations.
The slender man’s face lights up as he rummages through piles to find some of the most popular reads – currently Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Mhudi by Sol Plaatje, the first English-language novel by a South- Black African.
“Books, they put you in other people’s shoes,” said Mazibuko AFP. “I want people to visit here and be transported to other communities.”
As a child, he does not remember having had books at home.
After completing his studies, he left Soweto and settled in the old white suburb of Johannesburg, with artist parents, with a house full of books.
He developed an insatiable appetite for reading, even bringing books to the reggae club where he enjoyed listening to music.
When he decided to return home, he brought with him his growing personal collection.
“The readers who don’t have access to books, your old aunts, they’re like ‘you have books! Can I borrow one? “, he recalls. “And I’m like, okay aunt, it’s okay.”
Thus began the Soweto Book Cafe, officially founded in 2018.
Now he sells books to those who have enough money to buy them. And it offers a membership fee of ZAR 0.50 (US$3.50) per year for people to borrow books – although in reality it lends them to almost anyone who asks. “That’s one of the reasons I started this place, to advance literacy and provide the community with access to books and information, which is a basic human right,” he said. -he declares.
The Book Cafe also hosts a youth group, called Reading Is Super Cool, with 50 regular members aged 4-16. The older children read to the younger ones and Mazibuko teaches them board games like chess and go. Sindisiwe Zulu, 27, started the book club to help her niece complete her education.
“She was failing miserably and I asked her, ‘why.
The answer was that she couldn’t read: “I don’t understand anything, that’s why I’m failing.
“I have a lot of books at home, and I started with her and some friends first, and started the book club,” Zulu said.
Neighborhood start-ups like the Book Cafe took on even greater prominence during South Africa‘s strict COVID lockdown, when public libraries were closed for over a year.
Small bookstores like this proliferate across Johannesburg, usually offering second-hand books, but also a sense of community.
The last major survey of Johannesburg’s literary scene was carried out a decade ago, as part of the World Cities Culture Report, which found that the city has 1,020 bookstores, five fewer than Paris and around 250 more. than New York.
Mazibuko likes to focus on African literature and has hosted book launches and readings on his unassuming residential street.
Most importantly, it provides a quiet and safe space for its neighborhood.
“I come to do my homework, read and de-stress,” said Anele Ndlovu, 14, a regular at the Soweto Book Cafe.
“This is where I like to think about what I want in my life.”
His dream is to go into finance and become a currency trader. So while she’s enjoying a Michael Connelly thriller right now, she knows what she’d love to read next: “Books that can teach us what life is like and how markets work.”