I read The Pavement Bookworm during an eight-hour flight from OR Tambo to Hong Kong International Airport. I couldn’t pry my bloodshot eyes away from my Kindle screen. The author’s voice leaps off the page and speaks to you in a way that is both inviting and discomfiting.
Today, Philani Dladla is known across the globe as the Pavement Bookworm. His story has been told and retold through national and international media outlets, and he’s done a TED talk on how books saved his life. His book is part memoir, and part thank you note to all the people who’ve helped him along his journey. It’s also a painful commentary on our society.
Dladla’s origin story is both unique yet familiar. A young boy raised by a single mother. An abusive, absent father. A sterile education system that neglects to nurture the children under its care. A government that neither supports nor enables its youth. And yet, Dladla doesn’t see himself as a victim. He has faced many obstacles in his young life, but he’s also been given plenty of opportunities, some of which he squandered. Dladla recounts his mistakes with brutal honesty; his words drip with pain as he tells of all the times he chose drugs over life.
In an essay on Nadia Murad’s The Last Girl, Jennie Yabroff writes about the importance of memoirs about trauma, “These testaments tell us what is happening in our world, right now, in a way news stories can’t.” She adds that, “this intimacy is difficult, but it is necessary … if we believe the purpose of reading is to learn about the world and ourselves.”
The Pavement Bookworm provides an authentic glimpse into the lives of homeless people in Johannesburg; not only their trials but also their industriousness. It’s a story of staying alive, in essence, and of helping others survive as well. It’s so easy to look away when we see people begging at the traffic lights; this book makes it impossible not to see them, not to recognise their plea for help. By writing through his own trauma, Dladla has given voice to the voiceless. He’s given an account that’s different from the articles we read in newspapers or scroll past on Facebook.
There’s a reason why Dladla is such a good role model for children. Not only because he gives them access to the magical world of books, but also because, by being a teacher and a father figure in their lives, he can break the cycle of poverty and abuse.
Sure, this book is not perfect. Some parts become repetitive and over-moralistic. Dladla isn’t very subtle when he’s asking for support for his foundation. But it’s a story worth telling, in a format that commands our attention. I have mad respect for the writer, who was brave enough to bear his soul to the world. Isn’t that why we tell our stories? In the hope that they might touch someone’s heart and cause a ripple that one day might bring on real change?
Philani Dladla is that ripple; he is The Pavement Bookworm.