To the unaccustomed eye, a man toting 120 books while riding a stubborn donkey would seem nothing short of a circus spectacle. But for hundreds of children in the rural villages of Colombia, Luis Soriano is far from a clown. He is a man with a mission to save rural children from illiteracy.
“There was a time when many people thought that I was going crazy,” said Soriano, a native of La Gloria, Colombia. Soriano, 38, is a primary school teacher who spends his free time operating a “biblioburro,” a mobile library on donkeys that offers reading education for hundreds of children living in what he describes as “abandoned regions” in the Colombian state of Magdalena.
“In [rural] regions, a child must walk or ride a donkey for up to 40 minutes to reach the closest schools,” Soriano said. “The children have very few opportunities to go to secondary school. …There are [few] teachers that would like to teach in the countryside.” To help bridge the learning gap, Soriano decided to personally bring books to the children.
Every Wednesday at dusk and every Saturday at dawn, Soriano leaves his wife and three young children to travel to select villages, up to four hours each way, aboard a donkey named Alfa. A second donkey, Beto, follows behind, toting additional books and a sitting blanket. They visit 15 villages on a rotating basis. At each village, some 40-50 youngsters await their chance to get homework help, learn to read or listen to any variety of tall tales, adventure stories and geography lessons Soriano has prepared.
Soriano has spent nearly 4,000 hours riding his donkeys since his program began in 1990, and he’s not traveled unscathed. 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 out he had no money. Despite these injuries, which left him with a limp, Soriano has no intention of slowing down.
In addition to the biblioburro program, he and his wife built the largest free 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. Soriano’s hope is that people will understand the power of reading and that communities can improve from being exposed to books and diverse ideas.
“For us teachers, it’s an educational triumph, and for the parents [it’s] a great satisfaction when a child learns how to read. That’s how a community changes and the child becomes a good citizen and a useful person,” Soriano said. “Literature is how we connect them with the world.”
Want to get involved? E-mail Luis Soriano at firstname.lastname@example.org