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A Four-Legged Drive To Help Rural Readers
'Biblio-Burros' Travel to Isolated Colombians

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 5, 2005

LA GLORIA, Colombia -- Each weekend, Luis Soriano and two heavily burdened donkeys traverse the hills and savannas of northern Colombia, where villages like El Dificil and El Tormento were aptly named for their rutted, tortuous approaches.

Soriano's mission is quixotic, and the donkeys' cargo is precious: crates filled with as many as 160 books, destined for isolated villages where local residents have virtually no access to literature, beyond a few dog-eared elementary school texts and Bibles.

For five years, the bookmobile, which Soriano calls "biblio-burros," has served as the only library in the remote and impoverished area.

"People around here love stories," said Soriano, 32, a former shopkeeper from this village in the state of Magdalena. "I'm trying to keep that spirit alive in my own way."

Soriano fell in love with the printed word when he was 6 and earned a college degree in Spanish literature after studying with a professor who visited his village twice a month. The rugged landscape, where he has spent his whole life, can send anything on wheels skittering, while four-legged beasts plod ahead.

"The donkeys are cheap, reliable, don't need any fuel and can go almost anywhere," he said.

In a red folder, Soriano keeps a list of titles that villagers often request. Although his traveling library includes novels, histories and medical texts, the most popular books are children's stories of incredible events in improbable places, where animals are as likely as humans to be the heroes. Perhaps that is why Soriano and his burros fit in so well here.

On a recent night before his weekly journey, Soriano slips the books into individual plastic pouches sewn onto canvas sheets. He folds the sheets into briefcase-sized packets that will fit snugly into wooden crates hung from his donkeys' saddles.

Soriano has only two rules for those who come to browse: Wash your hands and don't write in the pages. He does keep track of who has borrowed which volume, but said he relies mostly on the honor system.

"It's probably one of the only libraries in the world where people come in with their backpacks and I don't check them when they leave," he said.

Soriano used to have a more ordinary life, running a supply shop and raising a family. He read for pleasure and had a home library of about 80 volumes. Then he started lending his books, scavenging, begging and borrowing to get more.

Eventually his collection grew to 4,800 books. His wife, Diana, grew desperate for space to raise their three young children. "She used to ask me, 'What are we going to do, eat books with our rice?' " he said.

Then, three years ago, Soriano found a sponsor. Addis Marilyn, the director of a community library in Santa Marta, a city about 180 miles away on the Caribbean coast, heard about his operation and signed him on as a satellite employee.

Picking up on Soriano's idea, Marilyn sponsored two other biblio-burro programs; the three now share an annual budget of about $7,000. Soriano said he has had no luck getting local authorities to help him establish a proper library, but the national government has taken more of an interest. Recently, a senator proposed creating a donkey-driven library network throughout the Colombian countryside.

To prepare for this trip, a three-hour trek to the village of Las Planadas, Soriano also packs about 40 paper piglet masks he has obtained with Marilyn's help. He plans to distribute them before reading "The Three Little Pigs" to the children there.

At his most idealistic, Soriano thinks that if enough people fall in love with the stories, a 40-year cycle of violence between guerrillas and paramilitary forces might be broken. The paramilitary fighters, believed to use drug profits to finance a system of deadly intimidation, rule many of the villages here. But Soriano said that he and his donkeys steer clear of them and they, in return, respect him.

The eight-mile donkey path to Las Planadas is lined with ceiba trees. Birds alight on the backs of wattle-necked cows and remain there unmolested. Iguanas dart across the trails in flashes of lurid green. Hours pass during which Soriano does not meet a single person.

It is Sunday, and Soriano knows that a Pentecostal church service will attract up to 100 people from many nearby villages.

"I think the pig theme will be very popular," he said as he neared the church, which has a concrete floor and half-built brick walls.

Soon, clusters of children, who also traveled to the service on donkey-back, begin to crowd around Soriano's little caravan. In a clearing under a stand of trees, he unfolds the canvas sheets and hangs them from branches, displaying all the books in the clear plastic slots.

Soriano passes out the piglet masks to the youngest of the 40 gathered children, who range in age from 4 to 15. They kneel around him, the girls careful not to dirty their Sunday dresses. He then begins to read the story, pausing to show them pictures.

"This is a house of what?" he asks.

"Straw!"

Many of the children cannot read, so Soriano often tutors them. Sometimes he tutors their parents, too.

Alberto Mendoza, 11, kneels alongside the rest. His family, unlike those of some of the other children, has a book at home.

"We have one," he says. "The Bible."

On a previous visit, Soriano showed Alberto an illustrated book about a bear cub that spends the afternoon building sand castles and watering a flower garden with its grandfather. Today, the same book is hanging from a branch.

When Soriano finishes the story and tells the children to pick their own books, Alberto sprints to the tree and grabs the bear book before anyone else can.

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