The Lowdown Hub

South African man brings literature to Soweto


Thami Mazibuko relocated back to Soweto six years ago, he noticed the lack of libraries in the township. In 2018 he started the Soweto Book Café as a space where he could advance literacy and "to provide the community with access to books and information which is their basic human right". Behind an unmarked gate, on a residential street in South Africa's Soweto township, lies an Aladdin's cave. South African Thami Mazibuko is the owner of a home library. He founded the Soweto Book Café in his childhood home back in 2018.  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 when 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. "I am a reader myself, the owner of book store starts. When I came back here around 2016/15 there were no book stores at all, I did not have books. So I started collecting books, I had some of the books I travelled around with so. When I used to live in the city, I had my books, I brought 30 books. So I had an idea to start a business and also for a book shop and a library for the community." His mission is crucial in a country where primary school-level reading literacy was deemed insufficient. In 2016, South Africa was ranked last out of 50 nations participating in a reading Literacy Study. The same year, World Bank data show the country had a 94.27% literacy rate among adults. Give back The one who only got the chance to own books when he moved to affluent suburbs of Johannesburg, takes on his mission seriously:  "That's one of the reasons I started this place, to advance literature, literacy and to provide the community with access to books and information which is their basic human right ..." The book Café also provides a quiet space for the youth living in the neighborhood. They come to do their assignments, relax and read. 50 regular members of a book club even gather here. "I started the book club in 2018, May/June, Sindisiwe Zulu says. I started at home. My niece had a problem at school, she was failing dismally and I asked her, 'No I actually don'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 just initially started with her and a few friends ..." Small bookshops like 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. Thami Mazibuko sometimes hosts book launches and readings in his home turned into a library. The Book Café has taken on, an even greater importance after public libraries were closed for more than a year during the lockdown. Township residents can now quench their thirst for reading, thanks to the hundreds of donated books.

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