With just 70 books, Luis Soriano established his Biblioburro operation in his northern Colombian hometown of La Gloria more than a decade ago. Ever since, he has loaded up his donkeys, Alfa and Beto, every Saturday at dawn and Wednesday at dusk to bring books to a regular readership that now numbers more than 300.
Soriano visits 15 villages on a rotating basis, serving people who are impoverished and isolated, with little or no access to reading materials. These journeys, during which he transports as many as 160 books at a time, can be arduous and dangerous. Soriano was once tied to a tree by bandits, and a fall from one of his donkeys in 2008 left him with a broken leg and a limp. He cannot carry anything that could be misinterpreted by the guerrilla forces as government propaganda material, including any books dealing with human rights or the Colombian constitution. When he first began going around on his donkey and gathering kids to read them stories, community members thought he had gone crazy. People made fun of him and pointed their fingers at him.
However, Soriano's Biblioburro operation now has more than 4,800 books, thanks in part to donations that came in after Soriano wrote a letter to a journalist and author he heard on the radio. Soriano asked him for a copy of his book, and the author broadcast details about Biblioburro on his radio program. A local institution provided some funds to help build a small library to house the books next to Soriano's home. Similar initiatives have sprung up around the world, and there are now donkey libraries in other countries, including Ethiopia and Venezuela.
Born into conflict in the 1970s, Soriano himself was displaced as a little boy to the city of Valledupar, a two-hour drive from his native village of La Gloria, due to violence by bandit groups. Far from his friends and family, Soriano found refuge in a local library, where he fell in love with literature. His love for books was encouraged by a very supportive teacher who would put books aside for him. His favorite was Don Quixote.
Soriano returned to La Gloria at 16 with a high-school education and got a job teaching reading to schoolchildren. He eventually earned a college degree in literature by studying with a professor who visited his village twice a month.
Years later, Soriano remembered how that teacher's support in Valledupar had helped him as he was learning to read. He recognized the transformative power that reading can have on young people who experience atrocities and felt the books he had read should be shared with other young people who were in circumstances similar to those in which he had once found himself. Thus was born Biblioburro.
Photo Caption: Luis Soriano prepares one of his donkeys
Credit: Courtesy of Carlos Rendón Zipagauta
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» Reel, Monte. "A Four-Legged Drive To Help Rural Readers." The Washington Post, September 5, 2005.
» Romero, Simon. "Acclaimed Colombian Institution Has 4,800 Books and 10 Legs." The New York Times, October, 2008.
» Ruffins, Ebonne. "Teaching Kids to Read From the Back of a Burro." CNN, February 26, 2010.