Lead SALead SA

Becoming a reader of the human library

Written by: Megan Ellis

The Human Library launch in Cape Town, on Saturday 27 January, saw attendees from all walks of life arrive to hear the stories of South Africans from unconventional backgrounds.

The launch was the local installment of the global Human Library initiative which takes a unique approach to sharing stories -- the library's books are people, who share their stories in one-on-one conversations with 'readers'.

The aim of the initiative is to dismantle prejudice and change the way we think about those from stigmatised and stereotyped backgrounds. It does this by encouraging us to open a dialogue.

I was one of the attendees at the Cape Town launch of the initiative. While I was there for work, sharing the event on social media, I also became a reader of the library - something which I now feel lucky to have done.

Even before meeting my 'book', I was inspired by how many people had come to hear the stories of others. Rather than coming due to morbid curiosity, people wanted to genuinely learn from South Africans who were different to them.

The lineup of book titles was diverse, with some even opening your eyes to stories you didn't even know existed - such as the heterosexual man who fell in love with another man, or the man living on the streets who doesn't consider himself homeless as he isn't looking for a home at all.

Titles at the launch included:

  • Finding Zen in Khayelitsha (exploring Eastern cultures in the township)
  • HIV+ and gay
  • Living on the streets
  • Zimbabwean refugee
  • Drag queen and son of a preacher
  • Cross-cultural adoption and organ donor
  • Andropause and pastor mediating gangs
  • Ex-gangster, ex-convict and ex-addict (1)
  • Ex-gangster, ex-convict and ex-addict (2)
  • Ex-gangster, ex-addict (1)
  • Ex-gangster, ex-addict (2)
  • HIV+ and substance abuse
  • Straight male seduced by older man (a romantic relationship without physical attraction)
  • Single mom and widow
  • Substance abuse and domestic violence
  • My ex-husband is gay...(and still my best friend)
  • Gay, Christian and son of a Boer

The prevalence of former gang members was due to Ceasefire's dedication to the central purpose of the Human Library - sharing stories to educate others. Ceasefire is a community organisation which mediates between gangs to prevent violence, while also counselling young people in communities where gangs are active.

Despite the similar labels of the book titles, their stories were not the same. As the Human Library says: "Don't judge a book by its cover". You should also not assume that books with similar titles have the same stories.

That's one of the first things I learnt when I had my reading session with Samuel, an ex-gangster, ex-addict and ex-convict.

Challenging my own assumptions

Even if you don't consider yourself prejudiced or susceptible to stereotyping, we all tend to approach people with certain assumptions. A session at the Human Library can change even the smallest assumptions you may have had about people.

My book was quick to tell me that he did not come from a broken home - his parents treated him well, though his mom died when he was still quite young. Rather, he was led into becoming a gang member through his admiration of a friend. This friend was his role model, so when he became involved in gangs, so did Samuel. In a few minutes, my first assumption had already been challenged. Rather than the familiar story of a kid resorting to gang life due to neglectful and abusive parents, Samuel's is a story of emulating the wrong role model to achieve what he promoted as success.

He became involved in gangs when he was still in his early teens, a career which spanned many years. It wasn't prison that made Samuel decide to leave gang life - rather, it was after he was shot in the head and left for dead. A bump on Samuel's head, which he was eager to show, indicated where the bullet entered his head. The healed exit wound can be seen by the scar at the top of his mouth.

What very well could have been a mortal wound turned out to be Samuel's signal to change his life. He describes the lack of long-term damage as an honest miracle.

Another assumption of mine was upturned when I asked Samuel how his former gang members reacted to him leaving. I've obviously watched too many action movies, where leaving the criminal life makes you a target.

But Samuel says that his former gang's members, and his former gang rivals, did not fault him for seeking a better life. Rather, they took the stance of "Good for you for trying to better yourself". He says that much of gang violence can be attributed to disputes over turf and resources, rather than personal hatred of individuals.

Now, as an interrupter for Ceasefire, Samuel mediates conflicts between gangs to help prevent violence in the Cape Flats. He also counsels young people and helps them if they choose to transition away from gang life.

Why more of us should become readers

Just in one reading session, I learnt so much from interacting with a book from the Human Library. In fact, Samuel not only shared his story, but shared advice on facing life's challenges.

At the Human Library, every dialogue makes a difference. You will challenge assumptions you didn't even know you have. And instead of seeing only labels or book titles, you will realise that every person behind these is unique and surprising.

To find out more about the Human Library Cape Town, you can follow them on Facebook or visit their website.

Make sure to also watch the LeadSA site and pages for any news of the next Human Library Cape Town event.

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