It is an unusual story of how a teacher is bringing books, and culture, to the children in a small community in Colombia. And how, through his personal effort, he may be changing a culture characterized by extreme violence into one of peace.
Since the decade of the 1930s violence has been an inescapable component of Colombian society. From 1948 to 1957 the country went through a civil war known as “La Violencia” which left over 250,000 dead, the result of old rivalries between people from the Liberal and Conservative parties. These incidents created the framework for the extreme violence in Colombian society today.
As a consequence of waves of violence and political persecution, whole families left their homes to live in bigger cities. They usually ended up living in the most marginal and poor areas lacking basic health and social services.
In the 1980’s new factors contributed to the perpetuation of this culture of violence in the country. One of the most important was the dissemination of cocaine and the incorporation of youngsters into the drug trade. Other factors were the economic crisis and the proliferation of guerrilla groups whose activities continue today. Colombia thus became one of the most violent countries in the world.
Inevitably, violence affected all activities of civilian life, such as education. According to some estimates, Colombia now has a 20 percent illiteracy rate, which can be much higher in rural areas affected by violence. In addition, functional illiteracy is also high, due in large measure to the lack of reading materials and libraries in those communities.
Ten years ago, a rural teacher, Luis Soriano Boroquez, had what for many was a crazy idea: to bring books to children in the municipal department of Nueva Granada. He had two unusual allies, two donkeys called Alfa and Beto. It is from them that his adventure got his name: he called it “Biblioburro,” or “donkey’s library.”
Every weekend, this elementary school teacher from the co-ed school of La Gloria loads his donkeys with 70 to 120 books (Alfa is the one that carries most of them) and travels distances from three to eleven kilometers each day bringing books, and culture, to rural children. Every trip takes him up to eight hours each day.
The idea for his library, he explained to the New York Times, came to him after he saw the transformative power of reading among children in a very conflictive area in Colombia. His aim is to fight illiteracy and to help children do research for their homework and provide them with reading materials that they don’t have in their village.
As soon as the first child sees him coming he rushes back to call his companions who come and accompany the teacher as in a parade. When the teacher reaches a village he chooses an empty space. There, he displays a makeshift table where some children do their homework while the rest sit in the grass reading and playing.
Initially, Soriano collected the books in his own house, where he lives with his wife Diana and three children, with the books piled up to the ceiling. But given the demand for books among rural children, and with the financial help of Cajamag, a local financing institution, he recently finished building a small library that has almost four thousand books.
What began as a need son became an obligation on his part, then a custom and now, with the construction of the library, it is an institution. “What I want to do,” Soriano explained, “is to teach children their rights, duties and responsibilities. When they get to know them, every child we teach through Biblioburro,” he added, “becomes an informed citizen who can say no to war.”
Although the new library now serves a small community of 200 children, Soriano still continues his outreach activities during weekends. “Doing this is my life commitment,” he declared to Valentina Canavesio, an independent film producer, “I want to be useful to the society I belong.” Soriano feels that his work contributes, in a small but significant way, to bring peace to his beleaguered country.
Cesar Chelala, a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award, is a writer on human rights issues.