Nestled on the banks of the Magdalena River in the heart of rural Colombia, around 600km north of Bogota, lies the small town of La Gloria.
It has two main industries - fishing and palm oil production - and is home to around 14,000 people. Among them is the quietly spoken, unassuming figure of Luis Soriano Bohorquez – a man with a mission, a collection of books, and some donkeys.
He has dedicated himself to bearing books on the back of a burro so that people in remote communities, where years of armed conflict have often disrupted children’s access to education, can enjoy a donkey-powered mobile library service – the Biblioburro.
Bohorquez knows a thing or two about education in remote locations, having obtained his degree in Spanish literature from a roving professor who visited his town twice a month.
It was this understanding of the particular challenges faced by children in rural communities that led Bohorquez to leave his job teaching at an elementary school and hit the road, with one of his faithful donkeys, Alfa and Beto.
From a modest start – he had just 70 or so books in his collection when he started – the Bilioburro now has more than 4,000 books at its disposal and makes regular visits to villages in the Magdalena area.
Children there don’t always have access to books at home – it’s an economically challenged part of the country. Plus, while literacy rates in Colombia average at around 94%, they are significantly lower for older generations; for many Colombian children, there is no family history of book ownership or self-improvement through reading.
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But Colombia has also been riven by armed conflict since the mid-19060s. Organizations like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have been fighting with one another and with the Colombian army and police, while powerful drug cartels also sought to carve out territory for themselves.
The decision by FARC to end its armed struggle has, perhaps unexpectedly, made the situation in parts of the country even more volatile. The homicide rate in the Bajo Cauca region of the country went up 225% in the aftermath of FARC’s demobilization in 2017, as rival criminal gangs fought to fill the void left by the guerillas.
All of which has a terrible effect on children’s schooling, making the act of attending school difficult and dangerous, distracting parents from supporting their children’s education, and even drawing children into conflict or crime and even drawing children into conflict or crime.
“A child we can educate today with the Bilbioburro is a child to whom we are teaching rights, duties and commitments. And a child who knows his rights, duties and commitments, is a child informed to say no to war,” Bohorquez says.
With his donkey, Bohorquez is able to carry around 120 books per trip, on round-trips of as much as 11km, which can take more than eight hours to complete. But he is building a permanent library to house his collection, which is currently stored in a series of boxes in his home and in the homes of nearby friends.
“We are building Colombians of the future... intellectual Colombians,” Bohorquez says. “It is my life’s commitment – to be useful to the community where I live.”