He was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2007 and survived 24 days of beating, stabbing and starvation. He has been robbed of his property six times; and he has been beaten eight separate times in different countries.
But all this has not deterred the youthful Indian activist from continuing with his 16-year tour around the world on a bicycle, preaching messages of peace, love and raising awareness of HIV and Aids.
“My journey started on May 27 2004 in my home village in India, and it will end on May 27, 2020,” explains 31-year-old Somen Debnath, who arrived in Malawi on July 7.
“I’m travelling across the world on a bicycle, spreading the message until I’ve done all the 191 countries,” he explains.
Debnath says between 2004 and 2009, he toured all the 28 states and six union territories of India, and between 2009 and 2012, he toured 42 countries of Europe, Asia, and to the North Pole up to Greenland.
He then dedicated the years 2012–2015 to touring Middle-East and African countries before he moves on to North and South American countries from 2015 to 2017.
“I want to reach the South Pole Antarctica on August 15 2015 and send pictures on my website and back home as people in India will be celebrating Independence Day on that day,” explains the soft-spoken and ever smiling Debnath, who holds a degree in zoology and a Master’s degree in Fine Arts.
But what inspired him to embark on this global mission?
“When I was 14, I read an article in a local Indian newspaper called Annanda–Bazar Patrica, which described Aids as being worse than cancer. The article focused on a homeless person who had Aids and was abandoned by his relations to die alone in front of the hospital in Kolkata.
“I was confused because I had always thought that cancer was the deadliest disease. I wanted to know more about this disease, so I asked my teacher, but he did not know anything about it. I went home sad because I thought if the teachers didn’t know, then we would eventually all perish.”
He then committed himself to learning more about Aids and when he was 16, he got professional training in the subject at West Bengal State Aids Control Society in his home country. Equipped with knowledge, Debnath set out to spread the message in his village of Basanti in Sunderbans and surrounding schools.
In 2004, he decided to increase his outreach to the whole world, with support from well-wishers.
“I have so far visited 89 countries and covered 106 900km,” explains Debnath. “I have met 21 presidents, 50 prime ministers and 186 ministers, apart from thousands of people I have spoken to about my cause” he says.
Since he started his journey, Debnath has replaced his bicycle seven times, and bicycle tyres over 60 times.
He says apart from language and cultural barriers, he has faced several challenges in pursuing his cause.
“I was captured in Afghanistan by the Taliban who held me hostage for 24 days,” recalls Debnath, saying: “During those days they beat me up, stabbed me and starved me for nine days. They made me work as their cleaner, and later as their cook before they freed me upon being convinced that I intended no harm to them.”
The activist had his bicycle stolen three times in Poland, Bulgaria and Germany respectively, and he has been robbed and beaten in other countries on his mission.
Debnath says he is thankful to all people he has met and continues to meet on his journey because they encourage and inspire him.
“My message to the world is simple: Aids is real. Let us avoid contracting the virus and if we already have it, all is not lost. I am also preaching peace and love. We are all one family and we need to live in harmony with each other—that is the ultimate principle of life.”
When his circus is finally over in 2020, he intends to use 60 percent of the proceeds of his journey to build a Global Village in India.
“The Global Village will be constructed between 2020 and 2025 and I will dedicate it to the 191 countries in the world and the people I have met,” explains Debnath. “It will be an ecological and sustainable village and it shall comprise an orphanage and old-age home; rehabilitation centre and it will also be stocked with all types of foods from the villages.”
Asked whether he does not miss his family, Debnath’s says: “The people I come in contact with on this journey are my family because I draw a lot of inspiration from them. I’m glad that I have become a global citizen rather than restricting myself to one small corner of the world.
“It gives me a lot of pleasure when I save one person with the message because that person will save his family, the family will save the community it lives in and the community will in turn save the nation which will further save the world,” he says.
While in Malawi, Debnath is expected to conduct workshops on HIV and Aids and on peace and humanity in colleges, schools, health centres, NGOs and social organisations in Lilongwe.
He believes everyone has the potential to bring change and make the world a safe place for everyone.
“Ghandi and Mandela will never come back to talk peace on earth,” notes Debnath, who looks energetic and jovial. “We have to stand up and talk peace, love and care to all humankind because we are all one global family.”