In the beginning, it looked like a crazy idea: riding his bicycle alone from Kenya to the Netherlands across 14 countries.
Now, as he pedals for a good cause and the inevitable adventure, there seems to be no turning back.
Adrian Dongus, a 30-year-old Dutch national who has worked in Kenya for the past four years, is clear-headed about his mission: to raise at least €10,000 (Sh1.1 million) towards buying hygiene kits for refugees.
He plans to put in the hands of every beneficiary a kit consisting of underwear, soap and, most importantly, reusable sanitary pads.
“Menstrual Cycle” is the name of his epic trip that started in Nairobi on April 13 with inspiration from a book written by a Scotsman who broke the world record cycling from Cairo to Cape Town in 2015.
When Lifestyle talked to him this week ahead of World Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28, Dongus had been riding across Sudan with his eyes set on completing the African leg of the trip.
“I’ve never had a problem talking to Western men about menstruation because they do not think it’s a big issue. But whenever I travelled across East Africa, I always encountered men that weren’t necessarily comfortable talking about the topic. However, they were aware of the challenges the women in their lives go through,” said Dongus, who was having a night’s rest before heading to Bahir Dar in Ethiopia.
According to Unicef, two out of three Kenyan girls cannot access sanitary products — something Dongus says he observed on his travel across the country.
A recently released research from Afri-Can Trust indicated that 65 per cent of women and girls in Kenya are unable to afford sanitary pads, with many forced to use cloth or other makeshift solutions.
It showed that menstruation increases absence from school, leading to Kenyan girls missing school and low-income women missing work — which further diminishes their income.
Dongus is aware that his single-handed effort will change only a few lives but he hopes to raise awareness. The business studies graduate has particularly been touched by the plight of displaced people he has met in camps across East Africa.
He noted on his visits that despite the best efforts from non-governmental organisations, whether in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp or South Sudan, sanitary pads remained a big challenge.
“What I wanted to do is use my bicycle ride to support South Sudanese refugees to receive a hygiene kit,” he says.
The trip covers roughly 8,000 kilometres over 14 countries — Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, across the Mediterranean Sea into Greece, then onto Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Austria and Germany. The final leg is to his hometown — the central Dutch town of Utrecht.
“Two-thirds of the trip is in East and North Africa over only four countries and I think it goes to show the immense size of this continent, which is absolutely stunning. I’m planning and trying to keep at cycling an average of 100 kilometres a day, whether it is flat terrain or going up and down steep terrain,” he says.
Dongus expects the trip to take 80 days of cycling “with a couple of days rest in certain places where I have to stop and arrange to get a visa”.
The cycling enthusiast describes himself as a citizen of the world. He was raised by a German father and Dutch mother, who worked in various countries across Africa and South America.
“Actually, when my mum was expecting me, she was working in Angola during the civil war. So, I was already in Southern Africa before I was born,” he says, laughing at the idea.
After graduating from university, he had a start-up in the food industry and worked for Rabobank before venturing into consulting.
In 2011, he chanced upon AfriPads, a social enterprise that some of his friends were involved in, and he realised he knew the Dutch investor.
He was intrigued and began to track the project’s progress. Dongus was struck by just how much menstruation separates boys and girls from an early age.
“Two years later, they were looking for someone to open the Kenya office and at that time I had closed my own business in the Netherlands. I decided that I’d love to contribute my skills to this. After some conversations with the team in Uganda, they decided to take me on to start on my journey to grow AfriPads in Kenya,” he says.
The organisation was started by an American-Canadian couple that travelled to Uganda to do voluntary work.
About two months into their stay, when the wife ran out of sanitary pads, getting new stock turned out to be a tedious process.
He visited different shops on the back of a boda boda trying to find a shop selling them but realised that the options were few and far between — and that most women in the area could hardly afford them.
“They started to talk to women and girls to understand where they bought pads and how they afforded them. This opened a Pandora’s Box on how menstruation is such a huge challenge and the many issues that come with it: taboos, not much cemented in policies, among others. There are a lot of challenges but the biggest is simply having access to affordable menstrual products,” Dongus says.
His initial problem involved looking for high quality but affordable sanitary products. “We ended up with reusable sanitary pads, a concept that’s very old and has been around for a long, long time,” he says.
The organisation started in a small, old classroom using manual sewing machines and together with the women in the community, they began making designs of reusable sanitary pads.
Over the past 10 years, they have continued to work with women to improve the designs and materials while incorporating feedback.
“Of course, the major advantage is that you can create a product that lasts for a long time at a low cost. We’re talking about roughly Sh500 for an individual for a whole year, which brings down the cost compared to disposable pads to somewhere around 20 to 30 per cent,” Dongus says.
Ms Esther Mbugua Kimemia, an author and menstrual health advocate, says efforts by people like Dongus through his “Menstrual Cycle” trip are important to raise awareness.
“When you think about menstrual hygiene, most times you think about sanitary pads. But it’s a lot more than that. It’s the education, hygiene, and even being able to change in a safe environment. There is also the woman coming to understand her body and how menstruation is affecting her life economically and psychologically. It’s multifaceted,” she says.
Ms Kimemia, author of Yellow Endo Flower, a book about menstrual hygiene believes that there is still a lot of taboo around menstruation and a society that is uncomfortable talking about the subject.
The inspiration for Dongus’ trip came from the book Africa Solo by Scottish cyclist Mark Beaumont, who in 2015 rode from Cairo in Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa.
The rider covered 10,000 kilometres, breaking the world record for the fastest solo ride through the length of Africa by finishing in 42 days and eight hours.
The previous record was 59 days set by South Africa’s Keegan Longueria earlier in 2015. Dongus searched for cyclist groups online and found that there were many people that were riding the route he was to embark on. He received a lot of support through such interactions.
“This was amazing. I have been fortunate to travel for my work across East and Southern Africa so I have seen many places but also ended up in meeting rooms with government officials and NGO staff without always having a chance to see the rest of the countries,” he says.
The Dutchman says he has enjoyed his stay in Kenya, a “wonderful country with wonderful people”.
“I wanted to see more of Kenya on a bicycle. So when I read the book (Africa Solo), I thought there would be a time I would want to return to the Netherlands and when I do, I want to do it by bicycle. This would be a beautiful way of reflecting on the four years that I’ve lived in Kenya and also make coming home a goal instead of just a new starting point. I also wanted to experience the changes as I travel north.”
He read blogs to understand what to carry, how much to bring. Being quite the minimalist, he says that every kilo he brought was a kilo he would have to pedal along with for 8,000km. He made arrangements for the necessary insurance and visa for every country that he would travel through and obtained emergency contacts.
The biggest challenge to date, he points out, is traffic — especially in cities. But thankfully, foresight saw him install a special mirror to monitor the happenings behind him before he began his journey.
By Friday, he was in Sudan, having encountered a slight hitch in Ethiopia where he was forced to reapply for a visa just as he neared the border with Sudan.
He took a detour back to the capital Addis Ababa to sort this out and is now back on the “Menstrual Cycle”. He had anticipated arriving in the Netherlands in mid-July but due to the delay, he now estimates late July or early August. He has thus far raised from well-wishers €1,000 (Sh112, 772) of his €10,000 target.
Dongus’ trip continues the story of selfless people sacrificing on the road in different ways so that someone else can benefit.
Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, this writer’s favourite, did the same thing when he won the Spanish Grand Prix two weekends ago at the Circuit de Catalunya on the outskirts of Barcelona.
Hamilton said in post-race remarks that his win was inspired by a young English boy, Harry Shaw, who has a rare terminal bone cancer.
Shaw sent Hamilton a video message wishing him success at the Spanish GP on race day morning. In appreciation, the five-time world champion and his Mercedes team, then sent an F1 car along with a pair of replica Hamilton driving gloves and the race winner’s trophy to the young fan’s home.
The tribute and resultant headlines generated by the F1 star’s gesture led to the donation of more than £100,000 (Sh13 million) in 24 hours towards Shaw’s medical kitty.
That offered another example of the many ways people across the world are inspired daily to give a part of themselves, their time, money and resources for the good and betterment of others.