The Pavement Bookworm of South Africa




I must have been doing my usual Instagram rounds of searching for pieces of good designs, ogling at cute dogs and fine girls when I found one of the most heartwarming pictures I've ever seen.

I happened on South Africa's Instagram feed and saw a picture of a man sitting on a pavement with a pile of books. One isn’t sure if he posed for the shot. It seems like a happy accident. He looks quite animated. His pose reminds of a clergy dishing out admonition, an opened book in one hand as the other gesticulates. His face contorts to stress a point. His dressing belies any cynical speculation about his mental state; an oversized snapback compliments a jeans trouser, and other accouterments of a hippie.

What’s interesting about this man is what he does on a street in Johannesburg. He reviews books to passersby. "If you like the review he'll sell you the book. This is how he makes a living. Incredible," says the picture description. Incredible indeed.

I screen-grabbed the image and shared it on Twitter. Between that December and the time of this writing, the tweet has gotten over a thousand retweets and favourites, mostly from South Africans and other parts of the world. Some people asked if I was in Johannesburg and interested to meet. But I'm not the hero in the picture. At its height, the trendsmap (South Africa) mentioned that I was trending in South Africa. My Twitter handle (formerly @AlooFar) queued among the queries that interest South Africans.

This struck me as a particularly interesting human story.

Craig, the person behind the South Africa's Instagram feed contacted me and I suggested that the story should be made bigger. We could find a director and producer to package his story. I sent emails & DMs to some contacts and to someone-that-knows-someone-that-knows-someone that could help with a short documentary. I worried that my efforts may be limited since I'm not in South Africa and I didn't get a favourable response. They must be busy or my message is still keeping vigil in their spam boxes.

Craig mentioned that he's also tried to reach other people (although he had earlier fussed over why I didn't use the Instagram link instead of screen-grabbing). We moved on. :)

Yesterday, and to my surprise, I saw on The Huffington Post a story about a South African who reviews books & sells them by the roadside. Same guy. We now have his name, Philani Dladla. Details include that he's 24 years old and gives out free books to children. How fascinating!

As someone who gives out books too, I'm intrigued by his efforts. I derive joy in introducing people to new authors or beautiful pieces of writing. My top gifts and recommendations: Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Heartbreaking Story of a Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and some non-fiction on varying subjects. (Interestingly, I discovered and bought my top books from roadside booksellers in Lagos, except Shantaram. Perhaps, the best books are not on well-curated and snazzy bookshelves).

The Huffington video, uploaded on YouTube in November, shows Philani more animated than the Instagram picture. One sees his passion. Short video but interesting. Like him, I dream of a world where people are more knowledgeable and open to more experiences, of course not limited to books. Including traveling and meeting people from different cultures. That, I believe, will make for a more interesting and tolerable world.



I'd like to meet this guy.