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

Solutions
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

  • Makeup guru Jeffree Star wants to sell pink vegan cheeseburgers

    Solutions

    American Internet celebrity and makeup artist Jeffree Star wants to open his own vegan-friendly fast-food chain.

    As reported by LiveKindly, Jeffre Star made the announcement during a live stream on his Youtube channel where he speaks to an audience of 11 million subscribers.

    During the video, the makeup guru said that he is "in talks" to start the business. The concept? A vegan-friendly ('that's the real gag") restaurant, selling pink cheeseburgers and cotton candy fries.

    Yes, you got that right.

    As noted by LiveKindly, this is not Mr Star's first foray into the world of veganism. Over the years, his beauty brand Jeffree Star Cosmetics already launched a series of vegan products like Thirsty, a vegan eyeshadow palette, and, more recently, the four festive vegan lip scrubs.

    We'll see whether these business plans will turn out to be something more substantial than a Youtube announcement.

    Meanwhile, we can't help but gladly notice that plant-based burgers and veganism at large are gaining momentum across different audiences.

    This story features:
    Read more
  • These are the 4 most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint

    Your moment

    If we want to save our planet and ourselves from climate apocalypse, we need new policies and governmental action. We're not gonna save the Earth changing our household light bulbs.

    Extinction Rebellion – a burgeoning social movement to fight climate change that is taking hold in the United Kingdom – is asking for just this: governments must tell the truth about the ecological emergency and enact legally binding measures to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025.

    There are no other ways out of this mess: structural change is needed.

    However, this doesn’t mean that as individual citizens we can go on a carbon spree without consequences. Or that all the ways to reduce our personal carbon footprints are equally ineffective.

    Different studies highlight that there are four effective ways to cut on your individual carbon emissions. And no, changing light bulbs is not one of them.

    While we should keep asking for top-down changes, it’s also good to remember that we can start making an impact on the environment right now by adapting our lifestyle.

    1) Eat a plant-based diet

    Plant-based diets are gaining momentum, at least in the media. Many articles published over the past few months emphasize the importance of ditching meat to fight the climate breakdown.

    I enjoy the flavour of meat a lot and I’d find it difficult to go 100 percent vegetarian (let alone vegan) right now. Nevertheless, I can considerably decrease my meat consumption. This is already highly beneficial for the environment.

    Moreover, I can advocate for meat alternatives like plant-based or clean meat.

    2) Avoid air travel

    Flights are a notorious source of gas emissions. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to avoid flying. Many jobs require travelling on a regular basis and even though in many cases a virtual meeting will do just fine, there are still some occasions in which your physical presence is needed.

    How to solve this ethical dilemma? One solution might be to donate some money to carbon offsetting schemes. These projects can go a long way in fighting carbon emissions.

    3) Live car-free

    Research shows that living car-free saves about 2.4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year (while a plant-based diet saves 0.8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year).

    I’m lucky enough to live in the Netherlands, a country where it's easy to move around without a car. This is possible thanks to an efficient public transportation system and the omnipresent cycle lanes.

    In this case, it’s interesting to notice how my personal decision to live car-free is supported by environmentally friendly public policies.

    4) Have a small family

    If someone doesn’t exist, she doesn’t have a carbon footprint. This reasoning might seem at the same time cynical and stupidly obvious. But it’s also true.

    According to Population Matters, having one fewer child is 25 more effective in cutting carbon emissions than living without a car.

    What else could I do to reduce my carbon footprint?

    Support Cool Earth, a highly effective organization that we thoroughly vetted.

    Cool Earth is not only an offset scheme. It provides grant funding to rainforest communities, supporting community work in rainforest protection and ensures their voice is heard in agreements about the future of the rainforests. At the time of writing, 234,436,540 tonnes of CO2 has been stored as a result of their projects. Their Asháninka project shields millions of acres of forest from loggers, with 901,679 acres saved to date.

    You too can help to save our planet. A more liveable Earth is just a click away 👇

    Read more
  • We vetted 5 celebrity charities to see whether they’re doing any good

    Obstacles

    It’s known that many celebrities support noble causes. After all, if you’re a celeb, you supposedly got the visibility and the money. So, you’re particularly well-suited to help other people.

    Some VIPs go the extra mile and found their own charitable organization.

    But are these celebrity-powered charities effective? Or even: are they doing any good?

    To answer these questions, we picked five charities founded by celebrities and ran them through our Kinder Vetting Framework. Let’s see what came out.

    The charities

    Our selection of charities below isn't based on any scientific criteria. We browsed lists of celebrity founded charities and tried to pick out a balanced list 

    These are the charities that we picked:

    • The Lopez Family Foundation. Co-founded by journalist Lynda Lopez and her sister singer Jennifer Lopez, the Lopez Family Foundation “advocates and invests in policies and programs that make a positive, measurable impact on communities and makes quality healthcare and health education available for underserved mothers and their children.”

    • Born This Way Foundation. A charitable organization created in 2012 by Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta “with the goal of creating a kinder and braver world” (we can’t help but sympathize with such aim).

    • The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Created in 1998, the foundation was established with the mission of protecting the world’s last wild places.

    • The Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation was founded in 2003 by Angelina Jolie as a “conservation and community development program in the Samlout Protected Area” (Cambodia).

    • The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls is a nonprofit boarding school that provides “education and leadership opportunities” to disadvantaged girls in South Africa. 

    The Kinder Vetting Framework

    At Kinder, we developed a vetting framework to assess the performance of charitable organizations. At the moment, it’s made of two steps but we’re working to add another two in the near future.

    The first step is called Initial Screening. With it, we examine the transparency and accountability of charitable organizations by evaluating their official websites.

    In particular, we evaluate the charities on five parameters.

    • First off, we check if potential donors can easily contact the organization they want to donate to.
    • Then, we see if there’s relevant information about the organization's staff readily available online.
    • Third, we check if the organization makes its financial statements public.
    • We do the same for the organization’s strategic plans: can donors easily understand how the organization is planning to use the money raised in the future? 
    • And finally, we check if the organization has been involved in any scandal in the past. If yes, we want to see how it explained the scandal(s) to its donors.


    This is a fairly low initial threshold. To pass the Initial Screening, you need a score of 95.

    The second step is called Organizational Competence. With it, we try to determine whether a charitable organization is competent and well-suited to solve the problems it’s addressing.

    If an organization fails the Initial Screening, we usually don’t vet it on its Organizational Competence. Our aim in the next months is to start reaching out to all the organizations that fail the Initial Screening, share our results with them, and ask if they’re willing to improve their score.

    The results

    So, to start with, we just wanted to see whether the five celebrity-run charities passed the Initial Screening.

    I asked our in-house research team to have a look. This is the screenshot that they shared with me:

    Again, to pass the Initial Screening you need to score at least 95. None of them did.

    Quite discouraged, I read the notes the research team attached to the screenshot.

    All charities with the exception of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation lack relevant information about their strategic plans. At the same time, DiCaprio’s organization needs to improve on other parameters like publishing its financial statements.

    The Born This Way Foundation’s website was deemed “quite minimalist” by the research team, lacking information about key staff members and financial statements. Similarly, the Lopez Family Foundation should expand its website to include financial statements, strategic plans, relevant information about key staff members, and contact information (they don’t even have a contact form).

    Obviously, the fact these five charities don’t pass the Initial Screening doesn’t mean that they’re inherently inefficient. It just suggests that they should work more on their online transparency and accountability.

    In general, Kinder is not in the business of bashing charities and we would never share an organization’s poor results without discussing them with the relevant stakeholders beforehand. In this case, we made an exception since these five charities are exceptionally well-backed.

    And if you’re Lady Gaga, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lopez, Oprah Winfrey, or Angelina Jolie and want to improve the Initial Screening score of your foundation don’t hesitate to drop us a line at davide@kinderdonations.org

    Header Image: The Wolf of Wall Street © Paramount Pictures

    Read more