At the age of 24, Philani Dladla earned the obscure nickname, the Pavement Bookworm. His story started when he was 12 years old and he received his first birthday present ever. It was a book, entitled “The Last White Parliament,” from the man his mother worked for as a caregiver. At the time, Dladla didn’t know how to read very well, he didn’t even know what a dictionary was.
“For me it wasn’t enough to simply read the book – I wanted to be able to read with understanding,” he says on his website.
Dladla explains that it was a long process for him, but eventually he got through the 203-page book. When the man who gave him his first book died, he left Dladla with his entire collection of books, about 500.
While growing up the book-lover made a few bad life choices and found himself living away from his childhood home in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa and trying to make a living in Johannesburg. “I just started taking more drugs and was caught in a downward spiral,” he says.
Eventually he lost everything and found himself living on the streets.
It was through reading and a careful observation that he finally found his way. While on the streets he noticed that many fellow beggars simply asked for money and didn’t offer anything in return. “I thought I could be different and actually give people something worthwhile – like a book or book review – in exchange for money,” he says.
So he started reading books, lots of books. He began with a few self-help titles to give himself the motivation to quit using drugs and then he moved on to other genres. After he read a book he would sell the book to passing motorists or give it away to a child for free. He based the price of the book on how good he thought the book was. Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper” scored the highest, “As good as it gets”, so it was priced at 80 South African Rand or or just over $6.
“While selling books I realized how much money I was wasting on getting my next fix.”
Dladla noticed the people living around him were also suffering from this terrible disease and wanted to help them out. He began to use some of the money he earned from selling books to buy soup and bread for the other homeless people. The Pavement Bookworm also started to save money for himself, to pay for rent. After about a year, Dladla was no longer living on the streets, but he was still reading and selling books.
Unfortunately, the people he helped feed grew resentful of his situation and he deemed it too dangerous to continue selling books at his usual location.
He moved locations, but he didn’t stop helping people. This time instead of helping those living on the streets he started a book club for children in a park in Johannesburg.
“I give them books on the condition that they come back and tell me what they learnt from reading it.”
He comments on his website that not every child brings back the book, but he doesn’t let it get to him because he knows that there are many children out there who will use the books and any knowledge they gain from reading to help them fight poverty.
Since the Pavement Bookworm’s inspirational story went viral he has accomplished many things, one of them being an aspiration he wrote on his website, become a published author. He also participated in a TEDx event in Johannesburg, which you can see in the video below.
To this day, Dladla continues to help children by providing them books and a place to discuss their hopes and dreams. He also speaks with leaders and acts as an a big proponent for events like World Book Day, which promotes reading around the world.
If you would like to help the Pavement Bookworm, you can check out his website for information on how to get involved.