Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer

Bringing Books and Seeking Peace in Colombia

A teacher, two donkeys, and a big pile of books are working to enrich the lives of the children in a small community in Colombia. Luis Soriano hopes in doing so to help bring peace to his violence-prone country.

Since 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 1980s, new factors contributed to the perpetuation of the 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.

In 1997, Luis Soriano, a rural teacher, had what for many was a crazy idea: to bring books to children in La Gloria, 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 loads his donkeys with 70 to 120 books (Alfa is the one that carries most of them) and travels distances from 3 to 11 kilometers (approximately 2 to 7 miles) each day, bringing books and culture to rural children. Every trip takes him up to eight hours each day.

He explained that the idea for his library came to him after he saw the transformative power of reading among children in an area in Colombia afflicted by conflicts. 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, Luis 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 built a library that now has more than 5,000 books.

What began as a need soon became an obligation on his part, then a custom, and now, with the construction of the library, an institution. “What I want to do is to teach children their rights, duties, and responsibilities. When they get to know them, every child we teach through Biblioburro becomes an informed citizen who can say no to war,” Soriano says.

His work has received international recognition. In 2011, he was invited to go to east Timor to share his experience. He has now included the Biblioburro Digital to his activities.

Although initially the library served a small community of 200 children, with the help of some volunteers, Luis Soriano has slowly expanded his work to nearby communities. “Doing this is my life commitment,” he said. “I want to be useful to the society I belong to.” Soriano feels that his work contributes, in a small but significant way, to help bringing peace to his beleaguered country something which is, finally, a definite possibility.

Dr. César Chelala is a writer on human rights issues and a winner of several journalism awards.

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.
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