As a child growing up in KwaZulu Natal he had always loved books. But after moving to Johannesburg to find work, he started taking drugs.
“I left my job and couldn’t afford rent anymore – I lost everything. While living on the streets I noticed how many beggars there were getting money for nothing on street corners. I thought I could be different and actually give people something worthwhile – like a book or book review – in exchange for money.”
So he started selling books on the streets – but only after he had read them and could offer passers by a detailed review.
He’d even adjust the price depending on how he rated each book – from 10 South African Rand (less than US $1) for those he didn’t enjoy, up to 80 Rand (US $6) for his favourites. He soon became known as the ‘Pavement Bookworm’ and his small business took off.
“With some self-motivation and a lot of self-help books, I made the decision to stop taking drugs. But while I was helping myself I also wanted to help the other people I had been living on the streets with. So I started using the money I got from selling books to buy everyone soup and bread everyday instead of spending that money on drugs. Seeing their smiles motivated me to keep using the little I had to spread happiness. From that point on, I knew I never wanted to go back to being a drug addict.”
Philani decided to share his love of reading with underprivileged children, so set up a Book Reader’s Club in a local park where children would hang out after school, waiting for their parents to finish work.
“I give them books on the condition that they come back and tell me what they learnt from reading it. There are some kids who take books and never come back, but I don’t let that dampen my spirit, because I know there are many more who love to read and who will use books as weapons to fight poverty.
Too many kids lose their way after high school – many of them turn to drugs, alcohol and crime. I want to change that. We don’t just read together – we talk about our hopes, dreams and challenges and support each other in achieving them.”
Philani’s story has inspired people across South Africa and the world – even featuring on CCTV Africa.
He has set up a website where you can support his work by donating books if you live in Johannesburg, or supporting a child in his Book Reader’s Club. What an amazing guy!