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There’s a Teacher Roaming Rural Colombia Atop Two Donkeys, Bringing a Mobile Library to Children

Biblioburro, biblioteca itinerante en Colombia. Acción Visual/Diana Arias - Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Biblioburros, a mobile library in Colombia. Image: Acción Visual / Diana Arias / Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

What would the world be without the wit and inventiveness of all those who see what goes on and wonder what can they do to improve it? What would the world be without teachers?

Luis Soriano, a Colombian elementary school teacher born in Nueva Granada, understands the value of education. He was raised in a community in the municipality of La Gloria, in the department of Cesar. Soriano graduated with a diploma in Spanish literature, thanks to a professor who visited his village twice a month.

Personally aware of reading's importance, Soriano is doing what he can to make sure books reach children where they might not otherwise. “Biblioburros” (literally “Donkey Library”) is a mobile library that distributes books around Northern Colombia on the back of two donkeys named Alfa and Beto, whose names together form the word alfabeto, or “alphabet” in Spanish. And one more thing: they are the “wisest donkeys in the world,” according to blog Narrative Journalism in Latin America:

En 1997 [Soriano] tuvo una idea que para muchos fue maravillosa, pero para otros constituyó una verdadera locura: por su propia cuenta decidió cargar en el lomo de dos burros 70 libros de matemáticas, literatura geografía e historia. ¿Su objetivo? Llevarlos a diferentes niños sin recursos ubicados en apartadas zonas de su municipio.

In 1997, [Soriano] had an idea that many considered wonderful, but for others was simply crazy: he decided on his own to load the back of two donkeys with 70 math, literature, geography, and history books. His goal? Take them to several poor children located in remote areas of his township.

Luis Soriano has enjoyed reading since childhood—a passion he says he owes to his aunt, with whom he discovered a memorable poem by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío:

Sin duda Soriano es un quijote colombiano, que enloqueció como el Caballero de la Triste Figura con los libros. Cuando su tía le leyó “Margarita está linda la mar”, no pudo dormir en ocho días. Tenía cuatro años y si no lo adivinaba entonces, al menos intuía que su vida estaría íntimamente ligada con la literatura.

No doubt about it, Soriano is a Colombian Quixote who went crazy, just as the Knight of the Sad Figure, with books. When his aunt read him “Margarita how sad the sea is,” he couldn't sleep for eight days. He was four years old and if he couldn't foresee it by then, at least he intuited his life would be intimately linked to literature.

Soriano recently spoke to CCN.com, listing some of the motivations for his Biblioburros project. According to the website:

In [rural] regions, a child must walk or ride a donkey for up to 40 minutes to reach the closest schools. […] The children have very few opportunities to go to secondary school. […] There are [few] teachers that would like to teach in the countryside.

His wish to spread reading isn't limited to the Spanish language either: Soriano also shares his few English-language books with his young readers:

While crusading against illiteracy in a war-weary hinterland, Soriano is keen to expand his meager English-language book collection. Understanding the importance of bilingualism in a country that increasingly is connected to the outside world through digital and print, he feels passionately that rural children should have greater access to words written in the world’s most widely-spoken language.

The video below shows Luis Soriano in action, highlighting the difficulties of obtaining books in some areas. That, of course, is where he and his donkeys come in.

Tengo 3,480 libros guardados en cajas, metidos en anaqueles, en burriquetes, en cajas, cajitas. En donde mis amigos tengo también porque no habría espacio para mí ni para los libros. […]

Alfa es la que prácticamente lleva toda la biblioteca, 120 títulos cargamos en esta biblioteca para el goce y el disfrute de los niños del campo. Tenemos recorridos de 3, 4, 5, hasta de 11 horas. Son 8 horas montado en burro.

Este es mi compromiso de vida. Sentirme útil a la sociedad a la que pertenezco.

I have 3,480 books stored in boxes, stuck in shelves, in boxes, and in small boxes. I also have them at my friends’ places, otherwise there wouldn't be any space for me, or for the books. […] Alfa is actually the one carrying all the library, we have 120 titles in these bookshelves for rural areas for children to enjoy. We do tours of 3, 4, 5, even 11 hours. That's 8 hours riding a donkey.

This is lifetime commitment—to feel useful to the society to which I belong.

In an article that appeared on the news website Quartz, Biblioburros was listed as one of eight libraries every book lover must visit. Quartz sparked enthusiasm among English-speaking Twitter users, as well.

As a result of his efforts, Luis Soriano has even been immortalized in a book for children by Jeanette Winter!

El maestro Luis un día decide cargar sus dos burros, Alfa y Beto, con libros, para llevarlos a los niños que, por vivir en alejadas zonas rurales, no tienen acceso a ellos. Desde entonces, recorre el país con su biblioteca ambulante.

One day, the teacher Luis decides to load his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto, with books and takes them to remote areas for children who can't access them otherwise. Since then, he's gone through the country with his mobile library.

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