I’m sure you’ll agree that Phelo’s Library is a feel-good story. It’s about a charming, passionate reader, a young boy. Despite his poor circumstances Phelo pursues his interest and even starts a library in his own home. Good for him; how admirable! By the end of the story, we all know this kid will go far.

But let’s not let his innovative and entrepreneurial actions mask questions we should all be asking after reading this story:

Is it fair and just that almost all young people in our country do not have access to a decent school or community library? Or even access to enough data to read what interests them on the internet – like the FunDza free online library?

This is one of the divides in our society, one that massively advantages the haves, and further disadvantages the have-nots.

Our charming main character is a bright, curious, imaginative, scholarly child. He should go far in life with all this. But we quickly learn the reality. He is hungry for knowledge, wants to expand his mind. But he’s poor so his options are limited. He lives with just his old grandfather; has a single mother who works far away to earn money for their keep. It seems Phelo doesn’t even have a phone, so that he could access reading online.

As one of the UWC students says, to do well and study further, being a good reader is essential:
“You’re the reader,” said Tankiso. …“Good. Keep reading. Reading is how I got where I am.”
“Are you studying?”
“Yes, I’m studying. I have a degree in English, and I’m doing my Masters in Education.”

But, how to ‘keep reading’ and reach the level of excellence needed to do a Master’s when you are like Phelo, with no spare money, in a poor township? He’s already read every suitable book in his tiny class library and nearest community library. We discover: “I’ve never been to a bookshop. What’s more, this was in the city,” where he last visited three years before. Book shops cannot survive in the suburbs, so transport to them is another barrier to getting books.

Phelo has saved every spare cent he has and it is heartbreaking when he pulls out his envelope of money to buy the poetry book: “How much are they?” I asked, thinking of the money in my paper envelope. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be enough.”

Poor Phelo has no idea how much a new book costs, and his R64.50 will not get far. Do you know how much new books (not textbooks) are? You will not buy a quality new book of any sort today for under R150, even off online sites like Takealot. Most novels are well over R200.

That is a terrible fact, in the face of the statistic that this 2019 article found, using a tool created by UCT Economics Department: “46% of South Africans bring home less than R1 000 a month and the bottom 10% of South Africans have to live off R345 a month.” Read more here.

Yes, new books are only for the well-off. The poet understands this and we love it when he says: “Oh, no, no, no, …Put that away! Save it for something special,” and the inspiring message he writes makes Phelo’s love of reading burn even brighter.

So what is the answer to this problem of information, of books, being very expensive and bookshops being few and far between?

Libraries. It is very cheap to join a library, and a library is a safe place to both learn, and to find books to read for enjoyment.

But we have a far too few. A 2018 paper “… states that only 7% of South African public schools have adequately stocked libraries. And, … of the county’s 23 740 schools – only 4 795 were located near a community library and only 31 had proper school libraries. You can read the whole article here.

But in Phelo’s Library, even the transport money to visit a library squeezes Phelo’s tiny budget, and the joining fee of R35 prevents him joining. It makes us think: surely, surely children should be able to use a library for free? We shouldn’t bar any young people from knowledge just as they are equipping themselves for the whole of their future life, and ability to earn a living. It can only benefit our country to have a well-read population.

Phelo’s Library illustrates how reading helps to close the information divide, occupied on one side by those few well-off South Africans, with the huge majority on the other.

Joko loves the Thor cartoon character on TV, and he will enrich his enjoyment by reading the original myth in the old book, Norse Mythology. Say he wants to get into cartoon-making himself? This is how he builds the background to do that.

Reading widely opens up more and more information to you; you can make more links between things, expand your general knowledge of the world, and of specific topics. Reading is travel; reading is knowledge; reading is powering up many areas of your life and this is life-long.

Phelo understands so clearly the power of books and information in them:

I eyed my school bag bulging with my new items. Four books for the curious mind. I felt excited.
No, there was something else I felt.
I felt rich.
Books are about possibilities. Therefore, me travelling with four new books I’d bought for free was a moment ‘rich with possibility’.

All us humans love stories, whether told in books, television series and dramas. Look at the poet’s message to his fan: Keep the story alive. We must not let the imaginative Phelos of this world be prevented from telling our human story because they lack access to information, and the means to spread that story. What a loss to all of us that is.

For those of you interested in ‘African folklore and normal horror movies, but mixed up’ here is a link to author Mohale Mashigo and Intruders.

And here is a link to fantasy book author Bontle Senne, who has written the Shadowchasers series.