Meet Luis Soriano, the Spanish teacher bringing books to Colombian country children on a donkey
Traveling the dirt roads of a remote rural area of Colombia with his loyal donkeys Alfa and Beto, Luis Soriano’s mission is to share his love of reading.
The 50-year-old Spanish teacher worried that many children did not have books at home in the most remote villages of this Latin American nation, which are often a 40-minute walk from their schools . So he decided to do something.
Mr. Soriano had the idea to adapt the saddle bags of donkeys and fill them with books so that they could cross roads often impassable by cars or trucks.
He named his donkeys Alfa and Beto because together they spell “alfabeto” – alphabet in Spanish. And for 25 years, the biblioburro – or donkey library – has changed the lives of hundreds of children.
“The kids are (always) very excited because when we come it’s a day of colors, princes, princesses and emotion,” he said. I. “What we’re trying to do is build a laboratory of imagination.”
Driven by fears that many Colombian children will drop out of school prematurely due to poverty and illiteracy, Mr Soriano has sought to get them to read in the hopes of persuading a few to stay.
“I wanted to try and keep the kids from dropping out of school early, so I thought about bringing them books on the weekends.”
In his early days, he took on the challenge of organizing reading groups in remote villages in a world before cellphones and widespread internet coverage – even phones.
It wasn’t easy, he admits.
“We started out with around 70 pounds. We started to teach children how to read. We used to go to people’s homes on weekends, ”he recalls. “But at that time, there weren’t a lot of phones, so it was difficult to organize meetings. Then we managed to organize meetings of about 40 children with their parents.
He and his loyal mules usually depart from Nueva Granada to Magdalena, just over 200 km south of Cartagena in northern Colombia, near the border with Venezuela. They visit the villages twice a week, sometimes walking 2 km but sometimes up to 20 km.
It would be quite a journey for most ordinary people, but it’s even more difficult for Mr Soriano, who lost part of his left leg below the knee in an accident in 2010 when one of the donkeys got scared , threw him away and hit him limb. After an infection spread, doctors amputated part of the limb. Since then, he has been using a prosthesis and has to climb into the saddle.
But that was a minor problem compared to dealing with far-right paramilitaries. In a country marked by violence due to a long war on drugs, Mr. Soriano’s innocent adventure has not escaped the attention of armed gangs.
“They forced me off my donkey and searched the books and my pockets,” he says. “They kidnapped me but, thank God, just for a day. It was a difficult time for reading back when these right-wing paramilitaries wanted to prevent campesinos (farmers) from knowing anything about the world. But I believe in human rights, so I wanted them to have access to the books.
He was released with his books intact and allowed to continue.
Today children don’t just read books about princes and princesses – they can read the history of the biblioburro and Mr. Soriano is famous in his own country.
The library has grown to 1,700 books and a group of donkeys are now helping Mr. Soriano bring the pleasure of writing to younger minds.
Without any help from the Colombian state, it depends on donations from supporters. “But it’s not enough to put what we have in mind into practice; I want to have a meeting place where people can come and read our books, ”he says.
That aside, Mr. Soriano says that it is not only to children that he has succeeded in bringing the pleasure of books; sometimes it is also their parents.
“We visit children in 250 schools in total, but also farmers who have enjoyed the books. Some of them have learned to read because of what we do.
Although he has visited thousands of children over the years, Mr. Soriano still seems excited about his project.
“It’s part of my life. It gives me a lot of satisfaction and my family gives me a lot of support, ”he says.
Alfa, now 32, and Beta, 28, played an important role in this trip. Without them, he said, none of this would have been possible.
Like teachers around the world, Mr. Soriano’s greatest pleasure is to think that he and his donkeys could have made a difference in the lives of young people.
“I know that out of 1,000 kids, maybe only about 10% will go on and do anything with what I helped teach them. But if I helped plant the seed, that’s what gives me the most pleasure.