An Indian campaigner who knocks on the doors of strangers around the world to spread Mahatma Gandhi’s message of peace and non violence, travelled across the UAE this week.
Nitin Sonawane, who has visited nearly 50 countries on his goodwill crusade, has grown accustomed to having the door slammed in his face and has even had stones thrown at him by anti-refugee groups who mistook him for a migrant.
But he stays positive and focused on the hundreds of people who have opened up their homes and welcome him to their communities.
The 32-year-old quit a telecommunications job in India seven years ago to walk an average of 40km a day and has travelled to countries from China to Costa Rica promoting his message of love for all.
He has visited 48 countries, covering more than 15,500km on foot and 25,500km on a bicycle since he started from Sevagram (means village of service) where Mahatma Gandhi set up residence in western India.
“I will keep walking to open people’s hearts for peace," he told The National in Abu Dhabi, his latest stop.
"I want to spread Gandhi’s idea of non violence, peace and truth.
“I speak to young people, local communities about consuming less energy, minimising our needs so we don’t clash with nature.”
In every country he chooses at least two big cities and sometimes walks between countries, such as from South Africa through Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.
This weekend, he will walk from Al Ain into Oman and on to Muscat.
Kindness of strangers
His travel, accommodation and food in many countries are taken care of by the local Indian community, peace activists and environmental groups.
In several towns, such as in the UK, he has pitched his tent in the gardens of friendly homeowners.
“Every day I try to knock on the doors of 10 homes, but in some big cities I avoid it,” he said.
“In places like the UK ,after the 10th house, an amazing man invited me in.
“In Africa, China and most of Asia, people just make a place for me for the night.”
He carries a banner with Gandhi’s photograph, which attracts attention, and people stop to ask questions.
Friends, fellow peace lovers and environmentalists join him on sections of the journey that he usually announces on Facebook.
After a visit to Japan in 2017, where he walked more than 700km from Tokyo to Hiroshima, a Buddhist monk joined him, beating a drum as they walked through Africa and Europe.
The electronics engineer uses examples from his journey to connect with people.
He travels light with a backpack wheeled on a trolley that contains dry rations, a cooking stove, documents, clothes and toiletries.
“I don’t earn money and still I’m the happiest person,” he said.
“We create a lot of harm with our needs. So I talk about how we can reduce unnecessary purchases, be conscious of what we eat.
“Everything is interconnected – nature and us humans. We need to respect each other and the environment.”
Walking the Emirates in summer
The UAE's sweltering summer heat has not deterred the peace walker who took to the roads in the morning and evening, covering close to 200km through Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman, Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
When he was walking through Ras Al Khaimah, a police officer stopped to offer him water.
“I cannot change the weather so I just keep walking, but I’m careful to drink a lot of water,” he said.
“In the UAE, the Indian community was very thoughtful and I have places to rest all along the way.”
UAE residents said his message was inspirational.
“He is reminding people of Gandhi’s teachings,” said VTV Damodaran, founder of Gandhi Sahitya Vedi, which organises programmes for children.
“Through his walks, he is convincing people that peace and love exist in the world.”
Experiences on the road
Mr Sonawane's journey has been filled with interesting and varied reactions.
In Serbia he had stones thrown at his tent, people in Pakistan gave him a mango "peace" sapling and in Afghanistan a local immigration official offered him money for bus fare so the Taliban would not harass him on the road.
“In Serbia, stones hit my tent and injured my friend. The people in a village thought we were refugees and did not want us around. But the next day, a lady offered us food, invited us to her home and gave us a place to rest at night.
“I have hope in humanity and that is the lesson I try to share.”
Mr Sonawane says he has no end to his journey in sight and will continue to spread the message of peace.
He will also spend time working on a project in his home state of western Maharashtra to better understand how to harvest seaweed, which is gaining popularity as a climate-smart and nutritious food.
“I will keep walking but I also want to work on capturing carbon from the ocean and creating alternative food for people,” he said.
“We must learn to act without violence to people and the planet."