"In 1990, the Colombian Ministry of Culture set up a system of itinerant libraries to take books to the inhabitants of distant rural regions. [...] According to one librarian, the books were always safely accounted for. ‘I know of a single instance in which a book was not returned,’ she said. ‘We had taken, along with the usual practical titles, a Spanish translation of the Iliad. When the time came to exchange the book, the villagers refused to give it back. We decided to make them a present of it, but asked them why they wished to keep that particular title. They explained that Homer’s story reflected their own: it told of a war-torn country in which mad gods mix with men and women who never know exactly what the fighting is about, or when they will be happy, or why they will be killed.’" (Alberto Manguel, Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography, London, 2007, 21-22).
I find the preceding story, recalled by Alberto Manguel in his book about Homer, a very appropriate introduction to the project that I am launching this semester in Colombia's most important penitentiary "Cárcel Modelo" in Bogotá.
After two years working as a higher-education adviser in two Spanish penitentiaries, I moved last year to Colombia, where I currently hold a position of visiting professor of Greek Language and Literature in one of the leading universities in the country.
As soon as I reached the country, I started making contacts with the Human Rights Department of the "Modelo" Penitentiary in order to get permission to carry out educational activities with the inmates. They welcomed the initiative and proposed me to organize a story-telling workshop which was successfully imparted last year.
This semester I have to teach—at the University—an undergraduate course in reading Homer in Spanish translation. Simultaneously, I will teach this course in prison, inviting students from outside the bars to join and participate together with the inmates. According to my previous experience, activities based on mixed groups of in and outside students are always positive. A group of 30 inmates is expected to participate. From the 50 undergraduate students registered in my course, I expect 20-30% to get involved. They will be joining the course sessions in prison in groups of 2/3 people per week.
Besides promoting reading habits in prison, the main objective is creating social dialogue between undergraduate students from the University and prison inmates, a dialogue based on Homer but seeking to approach violence in terms applicable to Colombian society in current post-conflict context.
The project will start in two weeks and so I cannot anticipate results. However, based on my previous experience both in prison and at the university classroom, I am fully convinced that it will be an outstanding oportunity to reflect on some deep-rooted problems in this country, where more than fifty years of violence are—apparently—about to end.