Sometimes to make an impact in people’s lives, you may have to pay a price, but it’s often worth it. Such is the story of Colombian grade-school teacher Luis Soriano. Inspired to bring the gift of education to the children of Magdalena Province’s poor and violence-ridden interior villages, he started a mobile library – on donkey-back.
Educating children and making them fall in love with books was his dream. Worried that his students had no access to books at home, he felt he needed to do something about it.
He decided to spend his free time operating ‘Biblioburro,’ a mobile library on donkeys — Alfa and Beto — that offers reading and education to hundreds of children in rural Colombian communities for over 20 years.
“I started out with 70 books, and now I have a collection of more than 4,800 books,” he said, adding, “This began as a necessity; then it became an obligation, and after that a custom and now it is an institution.”
Braving armed bands, drug traffickers, snakes and heat, Soriano still runs his mobile library, carrying the inspirational message about education and a better future for Colombia.
“In rural regions, a child must walk or ride a donkey for up to 40 minutes to reach the closest schools,” Soriano said, adding, “The children have very few opportunities to go to secondary school. There are very few teachers who would like to teach in the countryside.”
Soriano believes that people will understand the meaning and power of reading, and communities can improve by being exposed to books and diverse ideas.
“I saw two unemployed donkeys at home and got the idea to use them in my biblioburro project because they can carry a heavy load,” he said, adding, “I put the books on their backs in saddles and they became my work tools.”
At each village in interior Colombia, over 40-50 youngsters wait for their chance to get homework help, learn to read or listen to any variety of tales, adventure stories and geography lessons from Soriano.
“It’s not easy to travel through the valleys,” Soriano said, adding, “You sit on a donkey for five or eight hours, you get very tired. It’s a satisfaction to arrive at your destination.”
He has spent almost 4,000 hours riding his donkeys to reach to these children in the interiors of Colombia to teach them.
Injuries, setbacks have not stopped him from his mission. In July 2008, he fractured his leg when he fell from one of the donkeys. In 2006, he was pounced on by bandits at a river crossing and tied to a tree when they found that he had no money. He has not yet slowed down despite being hit by many such disasters.
In addition to the biblioburro project, he and his wife have built a library in Magdalena next to their home. The library has 4,200 books, most of which are donated – some from as far away as New York City.
Children’s adventure stories have remained one of the most popular items distributed by the Biblioburros. Along with encyclopedia volumes, novels, and medical texts, other items distributed by the Biblioburro include Horacio Quiroga’s animal fable Anaconda, the Dictionary of the Spanish Language of the Royal Spanish Academy (Diccionario de la lengua española de la Real Academia Española) and a number of Time–Life travel pictorial books.
His simple yet amazing work has attracted the attention of filmmakers too. A documentary ‘Biblioburro: The Donkey Library’ was made by Colombia filmmaker Carlos Rendón Zipagauta on the story of 39-year-old Soriano and his travelling library.