Meet the Indian man who is cycling the world to combat HIV

One man. One bicycle. 191 countries. A mission to spread HIV/AIDS awareness across the globe. Here's his story.

On 25th May 2004, Somen Debnath left the comfort of his tiny village of Basanti near the mangrove forests of West Bengal, India, to embark on a 16-year-long mission. 

With a bicycle, some clothes, and Indian currency amounting to €15, Debnath decided to travel to 191 countries by 2020 to spread awareness of HIV/AIDS.

At the time, he was 23 years old and had graduated from college just two days before.

I catch up with him in Miami, Florida as he’s about to set off for Lake Worth. Having started his journey from India, Somen has already covered over 150 countries across all continents including Antarctica. This distance of over 180,000 kilometres has exclusively been covered on a bicycle.

The goal to spread the word about HIV/AIDS began while Debnath was in college. “I attended a seminar on HIV/AIDS awareness and the lack of knowledge about it, especially in underprivileged sections of the world,” he explains, “Coming from a small village myself, I empathized with those around the world who did not have access to basic knowledge to fight the disease.” Across the countries he visits now, Debnath organizes seminars in schools, and universities - especially in rural areas - just like the one he attended all those years ago.

Over the course of his travels, Debnath has met people from all walks of life - from presidents and prime ministers to celebrities and sportspersons. “It has only reinforced my belief in the innate oneness of all humanity,” he remarks, “More than anything else, that is the takeaway for me as I reach the end of my mission.” 

How did he manage to fund his travels? He explains: “I started off with €15 at a time when I didn’t know anything about the internet or crowdfunding campaigns. Wherever I cycled, I always found people happy to invite me into their homes, share meals with me, and donate to my cause. After a few years when I got some publicity, the donations started pouring in via the internet. I have never really worried about the financial side of things. Someone always helps.”

He eventually began to sell each kilometre of his journey for a euro to various enterprises for funds. For instance, his visit to the North Pole is being funded by the Lakshmi Mittal Foundation.

I ask him about his typical routine for the day, which turns out to be as unique as expected. “I generally wake up at 8 am, and cycle for around 10 hours or about 150 km. Along the way, I stop at schools or colleges to speak about safe sex and HIV/AIDS. Earlier, I would simply barge in on them and ask for a stage and a mic,” he smiles, “I now have a team that helps arrange the workshops.” 

His most treasured possessions through all his travels are his 400 bracelets, which he never removes. “These were given to me by the people I met along the way. They couldn’t accompany me themselves, so now their bracelets travel with me,” he laughs.

It couldn’t have been all smooth travels for him though, right? “Oh no, not at all,” he laughs, “I’ve had my fair share of negatives. Had my bike stolen six times now. Spent days on end with hunger. Been robbed. Been homeless.” What are the incidents that really stand out? “Once while cycling in Central Asia at sub-zero temperatures, I was offered a lift by a truck and immediately agreed. After driving to a remote location, they stopped and made me hand over everything I had and left me there. It was a very low point,” he remembers.

But the incident which propelled him into media spotlight happened in the city of Herat, Afghanistan. “I didn’t know I was in Taliban territory,” he confesses, “I was approached by bearded men wearing shawls who took me to be a spy and kidnapped me.” For 24 days, Somen was questioned and tortured, kept in a dark dungeon with nothing but a few morsels of rice to sustain him daily. “I thought it was over for me, until I got a little friendly with one of the men and offered to cook meat curry for them. They did not have any mutton, only beef, which is sacrilegious in my religion but I had no choice.” His Talibani kidnappers were so impressed with his cooking that they released him a few days later. 

With his journey coming to a close, Somen has already begun preparing for the next leg of his life. Using part of the donations he received over the years, he has built a house in Kolkata that can accommodate up to 30 persons and will remain open to all travellers. The house has four rooms, one of which has been converted into a museum housing the souvenirs that Somen sends back.

“The larger goal is to build a global village after 2020, spread across eight hectares,” he explains, “I should achieve that dream by 2025.” Always the planner.

For Somen, travel is a way of retaining a childlike innocence, thanks to the spectacles of the world that never cease to amaze. He explains that getting caught in the routines of life shortens timespan - one never realizes how quickly life passes. “In serving my cause and making some difference, I have also expanded my lifespan, “ he laughs.

More Stories

  • 'A Message From The Future' is a new short science fiction movie narrated by AOC


    The Intercept has just released "A Message From the Future," a short science fiction movie narrated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and drawn by Molly Crabapple, describing the coming "Green New Deal Decade," when Americans pulled together and found prosperity, stability, solidarity and full employment through a massive, nationwide effort to refit the country to be resilient to climate shocks and stem the tide of global climate change.

    It's an astonishingly moving and beautiful piece, and deploys a tactic that has been surprisingly effective at mobilising large groups of people: creating a retrospective describing the successful project to inspire people to make it a success. Famously, this is the tactic that Jeff Bezos insists on at Amazon for the launch of new internal projects: ambitious internal entrepreneurs must submit a memo describing the project as a fait accompli, and if the description is compelling and exciting enough, they get the resources to make it happen.

    But it's not just Amazon: as anthropologist Gabriella Coleman describes in Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, her seminal 2014 study of Anonymous, this is how Anon ops get started: an individual Anon makes a video announcing victory in some op that hasn't taken place yet, and if enough other anons are inspired by it to make it happen, then it happens.

    In her article accompanying the video, Naomi Klein describes the audacity of other projects on this scale, like FDR's New Deal, and how much skepticism they were met with at their outset -- and how, as the vision caught on, it spread like wildfire through the population, so that something that was once impossible became inevitable.

    "One reason that elite attacks never succeeded in turning the public against the New Deal had to do with the incalculable power of art, which was embedded in virtually every aspect of the era’s transformations. The New Dealers saw artists as workers like any other: people who, in the depths of the Depression, deserved direct government assistance to practice their trade. As Works Progress Administration administrator Harry Hopkins famously put it, 'Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.'

    Through programs including the Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Theater Project, and Federal Writers Project (all part of the WPA), as well as the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture and several others, tens of thousands of painters, musicians, photographers, playwrights, filmmakers, actors, authors, and a huge array of craftspeople found meaningful work, with unprecedented support going to African-American and Indigenous artists.

    The result was a renaissance of creativity and a staggering body of work that transformed the visual landscape of the country. The Federal Art Project alone produced nearly 475,000 works of art, including over 2,000 posters, 2,500 murals, and 100,000 canvasses for public spaces. Its stable of artists included Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Authors who participated in the Federal Writers Program included Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and John Steinbeck." (A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

    This article was originally published on BoingBoing under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Cory Doctorow. You can read the original article here.

    This story features:
    Read more
  • Is Instagram's upcoming donation sticker just a way to lure credit card numbers?


    Last February, Facebook announced that it will release a donation sticker feature on Instagram, giving its users the possibility to support charitable organizations through Instagram Stories.

    The move is part of Facebook conglomerate’s increasing interest in philanthropy. If you’re on Facebook, you’ve probably already come across a fundraiser from a friend, asking you to donate to a charitable cause. Or maybe, you set one up yourself for your birthday. This Charitable Giving feature on Facebook raised over $ 1 billion as of November 2018.

    It seems that Zuckerberg’s plan is to transform his social media into the go-to virtual place for charitable donations. The endeavor appears nothing but noble and laudable.

    On Facebook, donors enjoy a smooth experience that allows them to donate to their favorite organizations in a matter of seconds and to share their philanthropic efforts with friends and followers. Moreover, Facebook does all of this for free, having abolished its transaction fee in November 2017. There are no reasons to suspect that Instagram’s upcoming donation sticker will be anything but another sleek and convenient feature of the Facebook family.

    However, over the years, we have learned that when Facebook says “it’s free”, it might mean you’re paying in currencies different than a direct monetary transaction.

    Again, there are no reasons to suspect that it will be any different when it comes to Instagram’s new donation sticker.

    To explain my point, let’s look at the bigger picture and consider the general direction Instagram is going towards. Last March, the social network rolled out a new feature called “Checkout”, which enables users to buy directly from select brands on the platform.

    Users can shop for items on their favorite brands’ Instagram profiles and head to an in-app payment screen to order them, paying with the credit card information they have stored on the platform.

    The aim is evidently to transform Instagram into an e-commerce app, adding another revenue stream next to the ad dollars.

    Soon after Facebook announced the “Checkout on Instagram” feature, Deutsche Bank wrote a note to investors highlighting how the move could enable an “incremental $10 billion of revenue in 2021”.

    Wondering if the average user would be willing to hand payment data to Instagram, the Deutsche bank memo fconcluded that many people already use Facebook for charitable donations through the app’s giving tools, and might be willing to extend that to shopping.

    From this perspective, the upcoming Instagram donation sticker would certainly facilitate the acquisition of users’ credit card information. After all, you’re much more inclined to give up your payment data if a trusted friend asks you to support a human rights organization rather than if you have to buy the umpteenth pair of sneakers from a large, anonymous corporation. But, of course, once your credit card number is stored in the app that alluring pair of sneakers becomes literally just a click away...

    In a way, it seems that Facebook will use philanthropy as a lubricant oil to ease its transition from a social media platform to an e-commerce one.

    I’m not saying that this is the only reason Instagram is adding a donation sticker to its deck (they also just like to monopolize your digital life) or that the donations made through it will be tainted. This is just an invitation to reflect on the way social media are reshaping the world of philanthropy and whether we like it or not. Full disclosure: one of the reasons I've been thinking about this is that also here at Kinder we're trying to build some digital tools to make donations to charities more convenient and rewarding.

    Obviously, we don't have Facebook's firepower so I hope that Facebook's donation tools will continue raising generous amounts of money. It's just that they're also part of the company's bigger expansion plans. Since philanthropy really is a noble undertaking, it would just be better if the donation tools were clearly separated from Facebook’s more commercial functionalities.

    But Instagram’s donation sticker has yet to be implemented on the platform, so there’s still plenty of time to fully remedy the situation.

    Credit header image: Wikipedia

    This story features:
    Read more
  • For the first time, a woman will lead a public university in Mozambique


    In March 2019, Mozambican professor Emília Nhalevilo took office as dean of the recently-created Púnguè University, becoming thus the first women to ever lead a public university in the African country.

    She was nominated by President Filipe Nyusi, but the decision about the recently-created universities was announced by the Council of Ministers on January 29. Nhalevilo will remain in office, in principle, for a period of four years.

    Born in Nampula, the most populous province in Mozambique, Nhalevilo holds a doctorate and master's degree in education from the University of Perth, Australia, and a bachelor's degree in science education from Pedagogical University (UP).

    From 2005 to 2007, she worked as Professor at Curtin University of Technology, in Australia. In 2008, Nhalevilo became the head of the chemistry department at UP, and then took office as deputy director of the Center for Mozambican Studies and Ethnoscience, a research center at the same institution.

    In 2017, she was a fellow with the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development of New York University, in the United States.

    Nhalevilo was the vice-dean for research and extension in the UP since 2018.

    As dean of a public university, her current position is equivalent to that of a minister in Mozambique.

    Eliana Nzualo, an activist and feminist blogger, says Nhalevilo's appointment is a historic moment:

    Nhalevilo is the first woman to lead a Public University in Mozambique. Congratulations to the Magnificent Rector! For more women in the Universities, For more women in the lead!

    In Mozambique, women still face challenges in accessing leadership and management positions. But there have been improvements: in the current parliament, for example, both the president of the assembly and the heads of the two largest political caucus are women.

    But gender inequality still prevails in the southern African country.

    The UNDP's 2016 Africa Human Development Report, whose title is “Accelerating Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment in Africa,” revealed that Mozambican women and girls continue to suffer from inequalities, such as poor access to justice, poor access to school and health care, and repeated acts of violence.

    In 2018, there were 25,356 cases of domestic violence in Mozambique, of which 12,500 were against women and 9,000 against children.

    Mozambique ranks 10th in the world for child marriages, according to a UNICEF report from 2015. The organization defines “child marriage” as a marital union in which at least one person is under the age of 18.

    In mid-2018, pilot Admira António became the first woman to ever captain a flight in Mozambique, while in December 2018, an all-female flight crew took to the skies for the first time.

    In 2014, when the Police of the Republic of Mozambique turned 39, Arsenia Massingue was presented as the first woman general in the corporation.

    This article is republished from Global Voices. It's written by Alexandre Nhampossa and translated by Dércio Tsandzana. You can read the original article here.

    This story features:
    Read more