Joburg's inner-city libraries overturn stereotypes of African illiteracy

Joburg’s inner-city libraries overturn stereotypes of African illiteracy

Upon entering Felix Nwigwe’s clothing boutique in Johannesburg’s CBD, you’ll be greeted by racks of woolen coats, purses, and books. Prices range from 50 to 100 rand, and the books cover more than 100 subjects, from science and politics to religion.

Nwigwe immigrated from Nigeria to South Africa in 2000. Over the course of 20 years, he has built up a loyal client base. He also works as a pastor, and his spiritual and self-help books are best sellers.

“I enjoy serving and helping people,” says Noigwe. “As long as people are happy, I am happy.”

Nwigwe is one of the hundreds of informal booksellers in the CBD that make up the “Literary Quarter”, or stretch of book markets and vendors near the Park Station and Rand Club in the city centre. You can find vendors selling books on street corners, from their cars or backpacks, or inside other stores such as barbershops or clothing stores.

Joburg Libraries within the city

A man browses in one of the many inner-city bookstores supported by Bridge Books, which amplify African stories and authors. (photo: Bridgebox)

Bridge Books, an independent bookstore in the area, has worked to gain recognition of the Johannesburg Literary District and to raise the profile of informal booksellers reaching out to the city’s masses. It works to help African authors, create a more vibrant reading culture to destroy stereotypes of African illiteracy and share the joys of reading so that they are more accessible to all.

His efforts are sponsored by a six-month grant, renewable this month, from the Microfinance Charitable Enterprise Foundation.

Books cannot be accessed

South Africa is proud Regarding childhood literacy ratesAccording to a 2023 study by Pirls. Rather than pointing fingers at young pupils, the statistics may instead reveal the lack of books that poor black readers have hampered in the country’s culture of reading.

“How can you read something you can’t access?” asks Zandisiwe Mhlekwa, who works with Bridge Books to coordinate outreach to informal booksellers. “How can you say South Africans don’t read or don’t buy books when books aren’t available for them to read?”

Books in South Africa are mostly published in English and Afrikaans, which can lock the reading culture of people with different home languages.

Johannesburg’s libraries are poorly maintained, book prices are high, and formal libraries can be very lonely spaces for the country’s majority black population, Malikwa says.

Francesca Martis, store manager at Bridge Books, says that growing up she couldn’t find any books in the language she spoke at home. She says having books in your own language affects how you grow and see the world.

“In addition to simply allowing people to read in their own language, it also affects learning processes,” says Martis. “People learn better when they learn in their own language.”

Martis says she read a lot as a child. Her mother would buy books from informal booksellers. Growing up, she said she chose to read more African literature and African historical fiction written by women, because that was what she grew up without.

Right now, blacks don’t seem to read at all. This is not true. We just don’t have the resources.

However, it remains difficult to find African literature and books in African languages ​​at an affordable cost, says Martis.

The lack of data on the informal book market makes it seem like people aren’t reading, Malikwa says. But it does not take into account the different ways people use to access books.

Read more at The Daily Maverick: When Art Imitates Life – Lessons from Yizo Yizo for the Literacy Crisis in South Africa

Formal bookstores, like Exclusive Books, are often found in suburban malls, Malikwa says, which cater to a whiter, wealthier audience. Many black people may not feel comfortable entering bookstores because they do not think they are places for them.

“[Formal bookstores] They are fairly elite, completely exclusionary and don’t necessarily care about blacks or poorer blacks.” She herself doesn’t always feel comfortable walking into a library.

Joburg Libraries within the city

The current Ngofu has been selling at his stand near Ernst Oppenheimer’s garden for two years. His love for books started with fashion and business magazines while growing up. (Photo: Yiming Fu)

Books sold by official booksellers are also subject to a 15% value-added tax, which puts them out of most people’s budgets.

“At the moment, black people don’t seem to read at all,” says Mahlikwa. “And that’s not true. We just don’t have the resources.”

Transform the story

Griffin Shea, founder of Bridgebox, partnered with the Johannesburg Development Agency two years ago to undertake community outreach and reframe parts of the CBD into the Johannesburg Literary District to change the narrative of what a city is and what really happens in the city centre. .

“People like to tell a scary story, like if you had to be really hard to live here and everything is gritty and intense,” Shea says. “But there’s another story: We’re also a city that can support over 1,000 libraries and we have 60 of them trading within 10 blocks.”

Bridge Books supports casual booksellers by connecting them with publishers and getting discount books for them. She also works to clean up the Johannesburg City Library as well as parks in the area where she hosts Stories with Children every Saturday. The store is also developing an initiative for street libraries in Soweto and Alexandra, which have large populations and limited access to books.

Read more at The Daily Maverick: Downtown looks forward – Joburg’s interior projects bring action and hope to its young residents

For the staff at Bridge Books, vision is key. Casual South African booksellers meet where they are in the busy city centre, mingling, shopping or outing. They display a wide variety of books and can show readers how many choices they have. Even if someone isn’t looking to buy a book, they might find something that catches their eye and fits within their budget.

Joburg Libraries within the city

Bridge Books is on Commissioner Street in the CBD. (photo: Bridgebox)

State parks storytimes also aim to get the books across to children and spark interest by meeting them where parents might take them.

“It’s great that books are being published,” says Shea. “But if no one knew they were there, or that they were available, if they weren’t part of children’s daily lives, then you weren’t really inclusive or representative.”

Bookselling fluctuations

Noigwe says that although book sales are lower than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic, they are slowly increasing again. Most informal booksellers in the literary district have seen similar trends.

Nwigwe doesn’t think sales will reach the peak they used to because people often use the internet to read books.

Present Njovo sells books in a kiosk near Ernst Oppenheimer Park. He has been on the platform for two years and has been selling books for seven years. His love of books began with the growth of business and fashion magazines. Textbooks and Bibles are his most famous books.

See Daily Maverick Lists of bestsellers by month

Henry Muho sells books and magazines near Park Station. His booth houses more than 500 books, including academic, motivational, and spiritual books. He says he sells about seven to 10 books a day, with prices ranging from 50 to 80 rand. Magazines fly off the shelves faster.

“The best part is interacting with people,” says Moho. “The more books you sell, the more you interact with other people and want to know what other people are getting. So, one way or another, you get to know.”

For Negui, reading is important for imparting knowledge, learning world history, and gaining wisdom from the people who came before you.

“We need to know where we came from,” he says. “It helps us know where we are going.” DM

This story first appeared in Our Weekly 168 newspaper, which is available nationwide for R29.


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