Knowledge Carrying Donkeys

In Colombia, teacher Soriano uses two donkeys to carry books to the remote areas, in the hopes of educating the children who live there

The village La Gloria in Magdalena is in one of the rural areas of Colombia. It has faced poverty and conflict situations which have been the root cause of the inhabitants’ bad living conditions and their children’s deprivation of education. Fortunately, that has changed for the better over the recent years, though there are still more things to be done.

School teacher Luis Soriano is one of the residents who, as a child, had to leave his hometown due to violence provoked by bandit groups and live with his grandmother in Valledupar, a nearby village, until he finished high school and returned back at the age of 16. He didn’t give up his education at secondary level but continued to higher education. His love for books has made him want to share his knowledge with the children of La Gloria and those of surrounding areas, who, at the time, were facing problems with poor, and very often, non-existent education. So in 1997 he put the Biblioburro  project into action. The project’s aim was, and still is, to improve the lives of poor children, providing them books and teaching them to read and write. Riding his two donkeys Soriano brings books to the children of nearby villages, teaching them

their rights and their duties as members of  society and promoting a peaceful way of living. And, along with everything else, he says, a child that we educate today is a child to whom we are teaching rights, duties and commitments. And a child who knows his rights, his duties and his commitments is a child informed to say no to war. Beyond all this, the most significant thing for him is to ultimately create a society of educated Colombians.

Soriano could prove to be a source of inspiration for many more populations and cultures, beyond his own. Most importantly, this is a person who had never lived abroad, yet teaches children about other cultures and lifestyles.

Communicating with him has been very enlightening concerning his vision and his ideals.

Could you tell me a few things about yourself? About your background, your family and interests?

I’ve spent the most part of my life in Gloria, Magdalena, with my family and three children. My wife is a great hardworking woman, always supporting me. I have studied Spanish language and literature by distance learning at the university of Magdalena and I attended  seminars on the impact of education on society.

What prompted you to create Biblioburro?

La Gloria and the surrounding villages were in severe lack of teachers and schools. This was something that worried me. So, one day I came up with the idea of the ‘Biblioburro’ { literally meaning the moving donkey library}. I already had two donkeys in my back yard and I gave them the names of Alpha and Beto, which means Alphabet is Spanish. That contributed to my project as well. I also already had several books at home and I wished to share these with these children. At first, there were many people who laughed at my attempt though I knew, deep down, right from the start that this would be an effective way to educate those children. My conviction has always been that even if there are no schools or teachers you have to continue the effort of educating children. What matters is to train and educate people about how to learn through books.

I would imagine that something like this is fraught with difficulty. How easy is it to go about such an activity?

The beginning was rather difficult: the project was not accepted by residents. In addition, the political situation in this area at the time was very difficult. We were facing violence situations. There were moments of fear and grief. The district was dangerous due to the conflict involving paramilitaries. I was stopped and questioned many times, and, as soon as they realized that my work was for a good social cause, they let me go. The areas in which I was working were remote and far from any technological innovation; some of them where not even on the map. I still visit them sometimes and I can tell a lot has been accomplished.

What exactly does your trip consist of?

As soon as I arrive in a village, I sit with a group of children, who always look forward to my coming, and we read books and learn how to read and write.

Do you have any specific stories from your work experience?

Many children have learned to read and write. For, example, there is a girl named Gina. She didn’t know how to read or write. Through this program, she has already learn to do so. A short while ago she herself taught her parents and siblings how to read and write. She says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up. How nice!

Has your work been elevated to a National level?

I hadn’t expected such reception. Initially after several efforts the project became known and a local television station in Colombia campaigned to collect books. After that, journalists from other countries heard about it and came to report on it. There are now countries in which the concept of Biblioburro is being implemented. Such countries benefited from my contribution and experience. This whole thing has been accomplished because of the children’s need to participate in the process of teaching and learning. My ultimate goal, was to spread the idea of Biblioburro to other Latin American countries. In Chile and Bolivia, for example, there is the Bibliollamas, and also in Brazil. Italy has got its own Biblioburro called “Serafino”, and so does India.

Finishing off my interview with him I asked him what his views are on the use of technology in education. He said that even though it can be a very successful tool, it mustn’t become one’s ultimate goal, because if this happens, the value of direct “contact” in actually reading a book is undermined.

Today he has created the Biblioburro foundation which has a library of more than 5000 books, most of which are donated, while some others have been purchased. He has many kinds of books, such as novels, cookery books, engineering books, a bit of everything. He now houses these in a building and is now making efforts to obtain more educational materials. His own story has even become a popular fairytale, and despite a severe foot injury due to an accident some years ago, he has continued his efforts with the same rigor.

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Anastasia Georgouli

Anastasia has a Bachelor's degree in communication from Deree College in Athens, Greece and at present she works as a freelance writer. The topics that she is really interested in are the ones that bring a positive change to problems, including environmental, social, educational or humanitarian issues. In addition, she loves traveling, music, dance and cooking.
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