On my twelfth birthday, I was given the first birthday present I’d ever received. It was a book from the man my mother worked for as a caregiver. When he gave it to me, he told me it was a very special book, so of course I wanted to find out for myself what it was about the book that made it so special.
For me it wasn’t enough to simply read the book – I wanted to be able to read with understanding. But up until that point I’d been at a rural school and had never been exposed to storybooks.
I didn’t even know what a dictionary was. It was a long process, but I eventually taught myself how to read with understanding.
That same man also left his book collection to me when he died. It was about 500 books altogether and I still have most of them – but I keep them safely back home in KwaZulu Natal. They’re very special to me. So since then I’ve always had books and I’ve tried to keep a selection with me wherever I go.
I was full of regret. I needed a new start in life. I had wasted opportunities back home and wanted to try and live productively. I had already started drinking and dropped out of school as a result. I went on to become a qualified caregiver when I first got to Joburg, but instead of kicking the habit, I just started taking more drugs and was caught in a downward spiral.
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.
While selling books I realised how much money I was wasting on getting my next fix. I saw other drug addicts around me getting sick and dying and became more aware of how addiction was affecting our lives. I was extremely emaciated and I knew that I needed to gain control of my life again.
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.
I had started saving money until I had enough to pay rent again. At first I just had a room – without even a bed or anything else, but I was just happy to have a roof over my head. After about a year, the addicts I was helping with my feeding project became bitter and resentful about the fact that I had turned my life around.
It was dangerous for me to stay where I was on Empire Road, so I thought it would be better if I moved on.
I still wanted to keep helping others though, because I believe that if you share, you will always receive. That’s how I started using the extra income from selling books to give free books to underprivileged children. In doing that, I started the Book Reader’s Club for the kids in Joubert Park.
I try to get to the park whenever I can. There are kids there every day after school as they wait for their parents to get home from work. There are about 26 kids currently in my Book Reader’s Club ranging about 12 years to 28. 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.
I want to be able to help young kids reach tertiary education without having to worry about finding the money. Too many kids lose their way after high school – many of them turn to drugs, alcohol and crime. I want to change that.
I don’t keep kids in my club who don’t have dreams. We don’t just read together – we talk about our hopes, dreams and challenges and support each other in achieving them.