Reading

Where To Read In Johannesburg

In 2017, we started a series on where to read in Nigeria. Extending the series to other parts of the continent, Phathu, a literary enthusiast and the co-founder of the Literary Alliance Bookclub, shares 4 recommendations on where to read in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

BY PHATHU

As someone on a mission to read 52 books this year, I can easily be found stuck in the pages of a book while nestled on my couch, or in between my sheets. Sometimes, being surrounded by familiar walls eventually gets a little tiring - even for a self-confessed recluse. The experience of reading a good book and glancing away, only on occasion, to enjoy frothy coffee or chilled wine is always a win. When reading needs to be done away from home, here are a few spots in Johannesburg that I enjoy visiting.

 

Bridge Books, Joburg CBD

Image: Bridge Books.

Image: Bridge Books.

If you are in downtown Joburg, Bridge Books has a great selection in African literature and doubles up as a coffee shop; serving some great cappuccino. The store boasts of beautiful reading tables that are customised with covers of some highly-acclaimed books such as Mohale Mashigo’s ‘The Yearning’ and Yaa Gyasi’s ‘Homegoing.’

Owned by the friendly and helpful Griffin Shea, the indie store is perfectly positioned on the bustling Commissioner Street, and is home to a diverse and delicious range of brand new and second-hand books. On a good day, a previously loved book on your to-be-read list can set you back only R20 (roughly 2 US Dollars) – a real steal by any standard! A bargain hunter like myself will definitely find Bridge Books a dream.

Joburg-based book clubs such as Literary Alliance regularly make use of the space, so, a random Saturday visit could result in you witnessing a passionate book discussion and perhaps, you meeting your favourite local author.

Tip: The second-hand books are right by the entrance. Start there and see what gems you can discover.

Go For: Books by African authors, children’s books, and coffee.

Avoid If: The busy Joburg CBD is not your cup of tea. Fortunately, they have another branch in Maboneng.

 

Exclusive Books in Hyde Park

A big fan of grounded coffee beans? Choose to wear your sweet tooth on your sleeve? Well, Exclusive Books is the spot for you! On any given day, you will find fellow bookworms occupying intimate reading spaces, or the more accommodative long reading tables that rest alongside bookshelves amassed with multiple genres of local and international books; some of which you can also find at their other stores nationwide.

There rarely is a shortage of good books to choose from, and I always stop by the delightful Pan-African section, which seems to improve with every visit. One of my favourite things to do there is sample books and authors I am curious about and keen on exploring. Even on a chilly day, everything above - coupled with the tasteful décor - is enough to tempt. My visits there are usually after work, which, fortunately, is a stone’s throw away.

Tip: There is a restaurant, EB Social Kitchen & Bar, adjacent to the bookstore. If you have time to spare, stop there for a quick bite. You could even buy a book and enjoy solo dining.

Go For: Good coffee and book launches.

Avoid If: You are on a sugar-free diet.

 

Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens

Image: Expedia.

Image: Expedia.

Sometimes, the outdoors provide a refreshing and even inspiring atmosphere to soak up nature’s goodness. When I manage to find time on a summery Sunday, I prefer to give the couch a break and lie on the grass to read. However, when I crave for a change of scenery, the tranquil Walter Sisulu Botanical Garden in Roodepoort gives the perfect opportunity to read and reflect in a picturesque environment.

The award-winning Garden makes for the ideal place for picnics, bird watching and hiking. It is also a great place to take some pictures to adorn your social media accounts. Naturally, some slightly distracting moments may grace you with their presence, though usually minimal: think of glorious birds chirping about, people enjoying relaxed strolls, and jovial kids running around. A pretty butterfly could also land on your book while you are looking away.

Tip: The Garden gets busy at times but if you take a walk around, you may find a quieter, intimate space to read. Entrance is between R15-50.

Avoid If: You are easily distracted and have a hard time locating your spot in a book.

Go For: A relaxed and breezy reading environment outside your comfort zone.

 

Sandton Library

If you are looking for a relatively peaceful location to read, a library is probably the perfect place. Just outside one of Johannesburg’s most loved tourist attractions - the Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton - lies the resourceful Sandton Library. With three stacked floors, there is ample space to get lost in your favourite piece of literature, or discover different titles. The library also affords you some privacy, which is extremely welcome; especially if, like me, you can only visit on a weekend when it is quieter. Sadly, drinks are not allowed inside, however, the peaceful environment allows for a productive reading session.

The library occasionally hosts book sales where you can grab a second-hand book for as little as R10 or R20 (roughly 2 US Dollars). Book events and launches are a regular sighting, too. The library is said to be home to over 90,000 books which readers in the community can borrow for an annual fee of R48. Be sure to take a copy of your ID and proof of residence to sign up.

Tip: The library has different operating hours on certain days; be mindful when you go.

Go For: A noise-free environment is not your vibe.

Avoid If: A noise-free environment is not your vibe.

 

A few other spots in Johannesburg that I would recommend are Book Circle Capital in Melville and African Flavour Books in Braamfontein — both of which specialise in African literature and have just recently opened.


Got any favourite reading or working spots in Johannesburg we should know about? Share in the comments and let us know what to look out for! 


 

Where To Read In Abuja

This article is the second in a series on where to read in Nigeria, and is written in partnership with Twang Africa - an online retailer, distributor and collector based in Abuja. We'll call this one cafés and libraries.

BY TWANG AFRICA

All around the world, cafés are the go-to inspiration hub for writers and readers. Be it to get some work done, meet new people or just for some pictures to earn some cool points on Instagram, here are two cafés in Abuja that we highly recommend.

 

CLASSIC ROCK COFFEE

Image: Classic Rock Coffee.

Image: Classic Rock Coffee.

Located at Ajesa Close, just off the ever busy Aminu Kano Crescent, Classic Rock Coffee is a café full of chic splendour. Once you step into the building, you immediately feel at home as the aroma of fresh coffee wafting effortless in the air welcomes you. The ambience is sophisticated, with a setting that crosses between contemporary and rock and roll.

On the walls are pictures of rock artists and covers of some of the greatest rock albums. You can’t help but get lost in the pictures and grand décor as even their coffee tables are actual drums! You’ll need a constant nudge to remind you that you’re visiting for something else – to read! You could either take a seat at the lounge upstairs or by the bar downstairs.

Either one you choose, you are sure to be welcomed by their very friendly staff. Classic Rock Coffee offers a variety of cocktails, mocktails, smoothies and - as you’ll guess from its name - great coffee! If you get hungry, you could always get something off their incredible menu. It may, however, not be the perfect spot for quiet readers as there’s always music playing through the speakers. Not to worry though, it’s good music!

Tip: they have Karaoke nights on Wednesday evenings, and a live band on Fridays.

Go For: great coffee, chic ambience and inspiration.

Avoid If: quiet reader and on a budget.

 

SALAMADER CAFE

Salamander Café is a favourite among writers, readers, expatriates and the general art community in Abuja. It is located in Wuse II. Here, you will find a small but dazzling space with a chilled vibe. The food - ranging from Pasta to great salads to traditional meals - and drinks are always a delight, and so are the staff. Must, however, warn that it is a little pricey!

A peculiar thing about Salamander is that it doubles as a mini bookstore. Towards the extreme end of the room, there is a beautiful space dedicated to the best of Nigerian authors like Leye Adenle, Toni Kan and Edify Yakusak. For book connoisseurs like us at Twang Africa, Salamander always leaves us inspired.

All in all, Salamander Café have you wanting to come back.

Tip: events and book launches are often held here. It may be worth getting in touch before visiting to read or work.

Go For: (non-)accidentally bump into an Nigerian author.

Avoid If: can’t resist the temptation of new books. Home is always safe - well, not entirely so, with Twang Africa just a click away!

 

LIBRARIES

Libraries are typically discarded as places to read leisurely, and are often a last resort for many in Abuja and nationwide; owing to the fact that most are poorly maintained, and in most cases, people don’t know that 316 libraries exist! Nonetheless, libraries are a great place to read, research and work.

 

YAR’ADUA LIBRARY

Image: Architectonics and Style.

Image: Architectonics and Style.

The Yar’Adua Library is located in the Shehu Yar’Adua Centre, and was built in honour of former President Shehu Yar’Adua. The centre has a gorgeous atrium (meaning plenty of natural light!), a museum and its extensive library. For a monthly fee of 10,000 Naira, you can make use of the library which has an exciting range of books that cuts across several subjects and genres. It also has free Wi-Fi (always a plus!) and good space.

Tip: events are often held at the centre, making it noisy at times. Call in before visiting to double check schedule for the day.

Avoid If: secluded places are preferred.

Go For: conventional reading spaces and exploring new subject area

 

BMT AFRICA GARDEN LIBRARY

Image: Twang Africa.

Image: Twang Africa.

Just by the Swiss Embassy is a narrow road which leads to the entrance of the BMT Africa Garden Library. You walk into a gem of a garden with lovely fountains, a mini zoo, lots of green areas, lounges and chill spots. At BMT, you’ll also find a mini exhibition of photographs and artefacts.

The library itself is relatively new and doesn’t have a huge selection of books but the quiet and serene environment makes up for it. What makes BMT stand out is its multifunctional space. You’re not restricted to the four corners of its library. Should you need some stretch, you could settle in the garden chairs to read.

Though access to the garden is free, the use of the library is not. You can subscribe to be a member for 5,000, 10,000 or 20,000 Naira per month, quarter or year, respectively. We’d, however, say to buy something - as little as a cold drink - if you use the garden space.

Tip: be careful when entering through its really narrow path which leads downhill to the garden.

Go For: quiet and serene reading/working space.

Avoid If: Not animal friendly. Peacocks, ostriches and other animals could be found lounging. Don’t fear  — the dangerous ones are locked!

 

Other great Cafés and Libraries worth checking out in Abuja are the Bunna Café (the coffee there is to kill for!), Metro Café and the National Library in Area 2.


Got any good reading or working spot in Abuja we should know about? Kindly share below or via our social media pages, and let us what type of reader/worker it caters to. 

Revisiting Alkali

BY RAYO

Image:  Lashifae

Image: Lashifae

Children should not be caged, he reasoned, for if the cage got broken by accident or design they would find the world too big too live in.
— - Zaynab Alkai in The Stillborn

Over the past 6 months, I have revisited a number of books from my childhood - from Ekwensi to Emecheta and, most recently, Zaynab Alkali. One of the reasons I loved - and still love - books is their ability to take you to places you have never been and may never be; to cause you to make friends with characters so well written, that you feel like you may bump into them on the street. These books have the ability to challenge one’s perception, and previously unquestioned acceptance of stereotypes or norms.

The first time I read Alkali’s books - ‘The Stillborn’ and ‘The Virtuous Woman’ - at 11 or 12, it was with some surprise at how the girls written about, barely older than I was at the time, thought about marriage and imagined themselves in love. Both books were set in Northern Nigeria, circa 1960s, and offered a glimpse at a different time, culture, and way of life. Alkali’s way of describing the villages in which these books are set are so profound that you almost feel the dust rising from the earth and settling on you

In the 6 months I lived in Bagauda, Kano, 6 years ago, some days brought back memories, as it felt like I was walking through the pages of some of my childhood books set in Northern Nigeria. Rereading Alkali now, who was one of the first female novelists to emerge from Northern Nigeria, I realise that she was not writing stories about ‘Northern life’ - it only happened to be the setting. Her books could have been about young girls anywhere. They are essentially about love and longing, youth and yearning for adulthood, dreams and how they play out.

 

Of Stillborn Dreams

The Stillborn explores - and subtly questions - the quest for modern life and an assimilation of foreign ideals - a thing sweeping through the village and eagerly adopted by Li’s father. In this novel, Li, the main character, is a reminder of my teenage self. At 14, she is keen to reject the order of life her father is desperate to keep his children within. She looks, sometimes with contempt, upon her parents’ rules: questioning her father’s strictness and his label of traditional practices as ‘heathen’. Li has big dreams, and longs to break free so she can live the perfect life she imagines. 

Told in vignettes, The Stillborn moves through time to show how dreams are built and can crumble, or shapes shift as life happens to them. For Li, who falls in love and marries as a teen, a foray into her dreams is marked by descent into chaos as her husband takes another wife in the city and treats her with derision. Yet, despite the tragedy that dogs her 20s, Li rebuilds herself, her life, and her dreams.

One of the most striking moments for me - encapsulating the essence of the book and how events change people - is a conversation between Li and her older sister, Awa, towards the end of the book.

“You have gone incredibly soft,” Awa shook her head.

“And you big sister, surprisingly hard.”
“It is the way of life,” Awa said sadly. “Do you remember when we were girls? Our dreams? None of our dreams seem to have come true…”

 

Finding Self

Alkali’s The Virtuous Woman, on the other hand, is another coming of age story, set in the early 1960s in Zuma - a multi-ethnic Northern community. It is about the lives of Laila, Hajjo and Nana Ai, 16- and 17-year old students. Mostly one long road trip, it follows the three girls as they leave the comfort of the familiar for the unknown.

Laila, with the exuberance of teenage-hood, is flighty and has no sense of danger, while Hajjo is stuck between familial obligations to her niece, Laila, and a friendship she desires to have with Nana Ai. Nana Ai, wiser than her 17 years, is at once certain and uncertain of herself in that place of crisis that dogs teenagers just discovering their identities. It is beautiful to watch her admit her insecurities about self, including body insecurities, and then shed them.

Soon after we meet Nana Ai, it is said of her: 

“It never occurred to her that it was in her to be whatever she wanted to be.” 

But as one moves through the pages, Nana Ai blooms - embracing herself, her family history, and falling in love for the first time.

 

A Refreshing View on Women

Alkali loves to tell stories within stories; it’s her way of filling her books with colourful characters like Li’s Grandmother, who often boasted that she had been married 14 times; Li’s Grandfather, Kaka, who had divorced her 3 times in spite of her refusal to leave; and Nana Ai’s herbalist Grandfather, Baba Sani.

Through her characters, Zaynab Alkali touches on the need for female education and equality, in such an organic way, you almost miss it. Without delving into actual politics of the newly independent Nigeria and the continuing influence of the British in those years, she also shows the reality of the times through the description of the European Quarters in The Stillborn and Her Majesty’s College in The Virtuous Woman.

In such a time as now when I have grown weary of the portrayal of female characters in African writing, especially by male authors, Alkali’s writing feels refreshing. While a lot of the literature that include characters from the predominantly Muslim North, portrays them as one dimensional characters who are uneducated and restricted by both culture and religion from making decisions for themselves, Alkali’s books have none of this stereotypical portrayal of Northern women as subservient and non-autonomous characters. 

There is no doubt that Nigeria, largely, remains a patriarchal society, and so it is with surprise that I find that these books, set in the 1960s and published in 1984 and 1987, deviate from the single story and, contain strong female characters who are not content with doing things the way they have always been done. These women can be seen finding themselves and owning both the good and the bad consequences unapologetically.

They are women who want an education, and a future that does not just revolve around a man. They are a reminder that there is always multiplicity of ways of living, even in the same geographic location. They reflect an importance of literature that deviates from the lazy low-hanging stereotypes about any set of people.


Ever read any of Zaynab Alkali's books? Which was your favourite?