/ 26 January 2021

The Book Stokvel: Africa writes; we read

Sarah Mokwebo Dsc1318
Sarah Mokwebo began her book stokvel in 2018, inspired by Abantu Book Festival. (Paul Botes/M&G)

I started The Book Stokvel in April 2018, with a few friends and acquaintances. The idea to come up with such an initiative can be attributed to a number of influences from my childhood and adult life. 

I grew up with access to a library at home and at school. As a result, reading was a very normal activity for me. My use of social media platforms also had me posting about books I would be reading once in a while, and some of the responses and engagements I’d receive would be ‘Where did I get the book?’ or people would ask if I could get books for them. 

What gave The Book Stokvel its core identity are the discussions at one of the Abantu Book Festival sessions, an annual book festival started by Thando Mgqolozana. A lot of authors on panels and during side conversations said their books were not selling, and the reasons included not being afforded shelf space in huge bookstores. The Book Stokvel operates like a traditional stokvel, where we all come together and contribute money for a shared objective. The monthly contributions go towards buying books by black authors from black vendors and black-owned stores. 

When The Book Stokvel started we were eight; the number ballooned to 70 in 2019 and 120 members in 2020. In each calendar year we have two cycles: one from February to November and another from June to November. The members each contribute a set amount of money on a monthly basis. In addition, the members agree among themselves on a schedule for each of them to receive books. Each recipient drafts a list of the books they want, which are then ordered from our suppliers. The books are then packaged and couriered to the recipient anywhere in the country. 

One of the things the members love about The Book Stokvel is the convenience it affords them, similar to services provided by a laundromat or someone picking up your children from school and safely taking them home on your behalf. The pleasure of receiving a large number of books at once, through affordable monthly contributions, is tough to match.

It’s always interesting to see what members buy, and they also want everyone else to know what they are reading. So each month we profile the five most-purchased books by our members. The trends tend to be indicative of what would be going on around us. In 2019, for example, a lot of the books bought were related to politics, which I assume was because of the national elections. In 2020, most of the books bought were by South African authors. A Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure by Tlaleng Mofokeng, Black Tax by Niq Mhlongo, and We Are The Ones We Need by Sihle Bolani were prominent throughout the year. 

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s classic novel, Nervous Conditions has been a dominating title since our establishment in 2018. There are some members who request books that can be considered treasures, such as titles by Noni Jabavu and Miriam Tlali, to mention a couple, which are almost impossible to find.  

We have an outstanding relationship with Book Circle Capital, located at  27 Boxes in Melville. Many of our book orders are fulfilled by them. Another book vendor we buy from is Afro Kulcha, an online store. 

We’ve received a lot of requests and suggestions from parents and caregivers to provide something similar for their kids, so we will have to do something for them. 

Children’s books are relatively harder to source, so the operational model from The Kids’ Stokvel will be a bit different.  

Quo vadis? We definitely will be expanding into the literary scene as we grow, and collaborate with existing collectives as well. 

Sarah Mokwebo is the founder of The Book Stokvel