Are you sick of reality TV? A world where there is a surfeit of everything, and we only have to touch a button to be entertained? Where we can be transported, virtually, to any part of the world and see it digitally, if not in reality?
I won’t go on, but I hope you get the message. Increasingly, the last year or so, I have found myself watching less TV, going to bed with a good book instead. Madonna said: ‘some people think I’m a nymphomaniac, but I’d rather go to bed with a good book.’ I guess she has a point. When you get tired of reading, you can close the book and turn off the light. When you wake up, the book is there if you want to read it, but it won’t complain if you don’t.
But what if you lived in a world where there were no books, or very few, and reading was a complete luxury that you thought would never be yours?
In such a world, in Colombia, a teacher, Luis Soriano decided to make books available to the children in his district. Most of them live on farms, and don’t have any books at home. So 13 years ago, he started a Donkey Library. He sets out on a long six-hour journey, riding on the back of his old grey donkey, who trudges along rugged country tracks, loaded with a pack of books on either side of the saddle. His old dog walks beside them. He stops at the farmhouses along the way, where the children gather, and he reads to them, and they answer questions about the stories he reads them.
His small library at the school where he teaches has grown to a large one, and he has changed the lives of many children and their families. Jose Ramos Horta, the President of East Timor, has invited him to visit his country and teach them about his way of bringing the world of books to children in poor rural areas.
When I was a child, I lived in the outback of New South Wales. My mother was a very well educated woman; she had a Bachelors Degree from Sydney University, which was very unusual for her generation. We were very poor, and lived in a small cottage which was being eaten by white ants; we had no electricity, no phone, and sometimes no vehicle, apart from a horse and sulky. During the years of the Great Depression and the Second World War, food was scarce, and years of drought meant that we were not able to grow our own food.
In all those years, my mother had only a few books she had brought with her, and used to rely on the circulating lending library and the newspapers that were delivered by train to the railway siding, 14 miles away, for information and intellectual stimulation. We children did our lessons by Correspondence School; they came in brown manilla envelopes once a fortnight, and we worked through them and returned them to be marked. Mum supervised us and helped us with our reading and writing.
We were lucky to have a parent who cared about education and books, and made sure we got the best education we could. My life might have been quite different if I’d not had a Mum who loved books.
So one man, in Colombia, has decided to reach out beyond his private world, and transform the lives of as many children as he can reach, in a simple, affordable way, without any smart technology or expensive equipment, just as many books as he can gather (most of them donated), a donkey, a dog, and a lot of love and determination.