Luis Soriano has found a novel way of getting books to children in rural Colombia - a mobile library on the back of a donkey!
Sunday, July 24, 2011 - 20:30

You're unlikely to have seen a mobile library like the one in this Dateline report; teacher Luis Soriano takes books to remote areas of Colombia on the back of a donkey!

Before he started the BiblioBurro - or Donkey Library - 13 years ago, many of the children had no books at home and their reading skills were lagging behind.

Now, thanks to his travels and reading to the children, literacy is improving, and the youngsters are learning about life far beyond their rural areas and the violent conflicts of Colombia's past.

Video journalist David O'Shea sees the delight as the Donkey Library comes to visit, and even helps with reading to the excited children.

Click to read more about the work of the BiblioBurro Foundation on its official website, and get an update on Luis' story in Dateline's 30th Anniversary Special.

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With the whole world just a few key strokes away, for our kids it's hard to imagine being starved of reading material. But for the children of the Colombian countryside, years of conflict have left them with little access to even the most basic libraries and books. Luckily, one man has taken it upon himself to tackle the problem using his donkey to help in his quest. And as David O'Shea found, his simple mobile library is giving inspiration not just to the kids, but to other poor countries around the world.

REPORTER: David O'Shea


This is Luis Soriano and his donkey Alpha. They're setting off on another round of the Colombian countryside, taking a mobile library to visit children living on isolated farms

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): Come on, Alfa. We'll be late.

REPORTER (Translation): How many hours' travel?

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): It's about a three-hour journey. Three hours each way. So six hours all up.


It's slow-going, but donkeys have always been the main mode of transport around here, and they're the best option for the terrain.

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): The donkey is a strong animal and is perfect for these savannahs and these forests.

When he first loaded the few books he owned on his donkey 13 years ago, his neighbours didn't know what to make of it.


LUIS SORIANO (Translation): People were asking, "œWhat's with the donkey and books? Are you nuts? You've gone round the bend. Carnival is over. What's with the costume, teacher?"

People were surprised by it all. So I had to give it a name.


And that's how the Biblioburro, or 'donkey library', was born.

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): Come and say hello. Shake my hand. How are you, my dear? Where's Gina?

The girl we have come to see learned to read with the donkey library and is now teaching her parents to read and write.

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): Hello. How are you? Come here. Where's Gina? Where is Juancho?

Look, there's a chameleon, a snake, a salamander, a turtle and an alligator. Look at them.


First, he reads to the children and then helps them read back to him.

CHILD (Translation): They can float;with only their eyes and noses;showing above the sur;"

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): Surface.

He leaves them some books and then prepares Alpha to continue on.

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): The other side, please. This side is too heavy. Let's do it properly. Okay, kids. It's been a pleasure to be here.

Stay still please. Bye kids - have a nice day.

When he is not on his donkey, Luis teaches at the local school. He first came up with the idea for the donkey library after seeing too many of his students were just not performing because none had any books at home.

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): They did no homework. I visited their homes and saw they had every kind of animal - Chickens, ducks, parrots, everything except books. I was the only one who had any books at home. I think I had the monopoly on books in the community - 70 titles.

This part of Colombia is just emerging from years of deadly armed conflict.Almost everyone in this community is dealing with recent trauma, including his little students.

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): Children who have experienced displacement first-hand. They've been witnesses to murder. The imagination of these kids is very damaged.

First, it was leftist guerrillas, and then government-backed right-wing paramilitaries, with the people caught in the middle.

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): It was either "œLong live the guerrillas!" or "œLong live the paramilitaries!" In order to live to tell these stories, we had to play along. We had to dance to whatever tune they wanted.


He says the paramilitaries were particularly brutal in this area.


LUIS SORIANO (Translation): They had a lot of weapons, very powerful weapons, Galil rifles, bombs, grenades and an army 300-400 strong against defenceless villages like the ones we have just visited, with mainly children living there.

Now that the worst days are behind them, Luis wants to make sure his students don't carry the trauma into adulthood.

MAN (Translation): It's good for this area because he goes to places where children don't have access to a library. He takes it to them, door to door. It's a blessing.

REPORTER: What service!

MAN (Translation): Yes, it's really good service.

For his efforts, he has won the hearts and minds of almost everyone in the region.

MAN 2 (Translation): I think it's a wonderful thing. We really need it in this area. Children don't normally see that. It's wonderful he takes the trouble to come out here.

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): I need to buy another two donkeys. How much for a couple of tame donkeys?

REPORTER: Why do you need another donkey?


LUIS SORIANO (Translation): We're taking the Donkey Library to other places.

Next stop, an isolated school. LUIS SORIANO (Translation): The kids all come to the one place. We don't go door to door. We only visit those who can't attend.

CHILDREN (Translation): The donkey library is here!

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): How have you been? Good.

What's new? How are things? Good.

Help me with this.

The teacher appreciates the distraction.

MAN 3 (Translation): I told them the Donkey Library was on its way, that it would be here soon. When the kids saw him arrive they were very happy.


LUIS SORIANO (Translation): We have something for everyone this is very nice ..

Do you have books at home?

She has no books at home. It's the first time she has seen any.

I'll ask questions. Pay attention. It's called reading comprehension.

How did the wolf sneeze? Good!


What does a wolf do when he sees a nice little pig's bottom?

Does he eat it?


CHILDREN (Translation): Yes.


LUIS SORIANO (Translation): Of course. See. Look.

Now the reading is over. I hope you enjoy the books I've brought. Get them out, enjoy them, look at them, share them, ask questions. Go and get the books and swap them around.

If we teach a citizen, a compatriot, to read, he or she will be a good citizen. The main purpose of the Donkey Library is to take books they can at least look at. So they see that the world isn't just mountains, paths, donkeys and cows. There are other places in the world.

MAN 3 (Translation): Yes, that's in English, but it's not difficult. If you want, ask him to read for you because he speaks English, he can translate.


CHILD (Translation): Can you tell us what the English says? In Spanish!

REPORTER: I want to see a herd of sheep who dance the rumba in their sleep. They are dreaming. Yes, the sheep who are dancing.


I tell Luis that gadgets for reading are replacing books in my own country but he doesn't see that as a problem.

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): We have to teach and prepare them. And it's a good thing. It has to happen. We need development. We can't be left behind. But if we, who live in these mountains, and who still use smoke signals, don't take advantage of the books others are leaving behind... We must take possession of them.


Starting out with just 70 books he now has over 5,000, and has built a permanent library for them, next to his home. The project has raised so much interest that Luis has formed the Biblioburro foundation and he now has help for all the new projects coming up.


MAN 4 (Translation): We're making good progress with the digital Donkey Library. We're also in negotiations with Norway. They wanted the proposal in English, and I said I'd translate it.

The book donations come from far and wide. A woman in the US has even offered to send some sort of electric car to help them get around.

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): An electric car and a computer.

Luis's neighbours are proud of their local hero.

WOMAN (Translation): He's well known all over, all over the place, nationally too, and all around the region. He's well liked by everyone. Everyone likes him. He's a person who solves a lot of problems around the municipality.

It's not only here that he's in demand. He has even been invited by President Ramos Horta to visit East Timor to share his experience. He's nervous about it, but I explain the President is easy to get on with.

REPORTER, ON PHONE: I am going to put him on now. Here he is, Luis Soriano.

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): Mr President how are you?


PRESIDENT RAMOS HORTA: Hello good afternoon, Mr Soriano. How are you?

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): It's a pleasure to hear you. I am very exited about coming to your country. You can't imagine how thrilled I am to hear you.

PRESIDENT RAMOS HORTA: It's a pleasure and a great honour for us to invite you to our country and make you welcome, to find out more about your experiences, and to let us share your experience with our teachers and with our people in general.

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): Thank you, Mr President. Warm greetings from my country.

PRESIDENT RAMOS HORTA: Thank you. See you soon.

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): See you, Mr President. Have a nice day.


But like any success story, this one is generating some petty jealousies amongst Luis' poverty stricken neighbours, who receive little or no help from the government.

WOMAN (Translation): He gets paid for the program. What about something for us too?


REPORTER (Translation): Isn't that the government's responsibility?

WOMAN (Translation): Maybe. I don't know whose it is.

REPORTER (Translation): I don't know if Senor Luis can help everyone?

WOMAN (Translation): Maybe not. I don't know for sure if he gets paid or not. But we parents also need to receive something, some help from the program, for the children at least.


Luis says he makes no money from the library, and insists it's about something much more important than that.

LUIS SORIANO (Translation): When things are done with love and dedication, they transcend time and space. That's why it's had such impact and worldwide recognition. It's a labour of love. Things are more valuable when they can't be bought.










Original Music composed by VICKI HANSEN

24th July 2011