Published Date: 26 October 2008
SIMON ROMERO IN LA GLORIA
IN A ritual repeated nearly every weekend for the past decade in Colombia’s war-weary Caribbean hinterlands, Luis Soriano gathered his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto, in front of his home.
Sweating already under the unforgiving sun, he strapped pouches with the word “Biblioburro” painted in blue letters to the donkeys’ backs and loaded them with an eclectic cargo of books destined for people living in the small villages beyond.
“I started out with 70 books, and now I have a collection of more than 4,800,” said Soriano, 36, a primary school teacher who lives in a small house with his wife and three children, with books piled to the ceilings.
“This began as a necessity; then it became an obligation; and after that a custom,” he explained, squinting at the hills undulating into the horizon. “Now it is an institution.”
A whimsical take on the mobile library, Soriano’s Biblioburro is a small institution: one man and two donkeys. He created it out of the simple belief that the act of taking books to people who do not have them can somehow improve this impoverished region, and perhaps Colombia.
In doing so, Soriano has emerged as the best-known resident of La Gloria, a town that feels even further removed from the rhythms of the wider world than Aracataca, the inspiration for the setting of the epic One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, another of the region’s native sons.
Soriano has never travelled outside Colombia, but he remains dedicated to bringing its people a touch of the outside world. His project has won acclaim from literacy specialists and is the subject of a new documentary by a Colombian filmmaker, Carlos Rendon Zipaguata.
The idea came to him, he said, after he witnessed as a young teacher the transformative power of reading among his pupils, who were born into conflict even more intense than when he was a child.
The violence by bandit groups was so bad when he was young that his parents sent him to live with his grandmother in the nearby city of Valledupar, near the Venezuelan border. He returned at age 16 with a high school degree and got a job teaching reading to schoolchildren.
By the time he was in his 20s, Colombia’s long internal war had drawn paramilitary bands to the lawless marshlands and hills surrounding La Gloria.
Into that violence, which has since ebbed, Soriano ventured with his donkeys, taking with him a few textbooks, encyclopedia volumes and novels. At stops along the way, children still await the teacher in groups to hear him read from the books he brings before they can borrow them.