Review — FROM AFAR by Kyle Henning (Ethiopia)

 


From Afar:  One man’s human-powered adventure from the lowest point on the African continent to the summit of its highest mountain
by Kyle Henning (Ethiopia 2009-11)
$17.99 (Paperback); $0.00 (Kindle);
Self-Published, May 2021
253 pages

Reviewed by Cynthia Nelson Mosca (Ethiopia 1967-69)

I began my adventure with Kyle Henning’s videos on YouTube beginning with Part 1 where Kyle is very neat and clean, a situation that definitely changed by the end of his adventure. This video was enough to catch and hold my interest. I continued watching one video a day until the book was available for purchase. Then I held off watching the last one until I finished the book.

How does a classically-trained bassist go from working in a bank in upstate New York to Abyssinia? Isn’t it obvious? Through AmeriCorps. Perhaps not obvious, but Kyle Henning strongly wanted out of his cubicle. He wanted to take action that he could be proud of and would benefit others, so he applied to AmeriCorps. Several months later he found himself along with his team, clearing storm debris in Louisiana and Mississippi.

“AmeriCorps was a great fit for me. I was helping people, learning new skills, and traveling the country . . ..”

With over two years of service in AmeriCorps, he applied to the Peace Corps and was accepted as a volunteer assigned to Ethiopia. He was excited and terrified.

Soon he was in Bahir Dar, the “Riviera of Ethiopia,” working for OSSA (Organization for Social Services for AIDS). He had his own house and a mode of transportation — a bicycle. While cycling around Bahir Dar in the evenings, his mind began to obsess about cycling from Djibouti to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

How does one bike from one of the lowest places in Africa to the highest with limited funds and a far from new bicycle? I am the last person who would try this, no matter the cause. I have been told that it is scary to watch me on a bike, wobbling back and forth, nearly taking my head off with low hanging branches, unable to use the handbrakes, and jumping off when I want to stop. Not Kyle, he trained for this journey and turned it into a fundraiser for New Day’s Children Center in Bahir Dar. I wish I could tell you that the Center is doing fine, but there have been no updates since April 2020. All proceeds from book sales go to the Children Center or AmeriCorps St. Louis.

Henning began his journey to Kilimanjaro in January 2011 at the end of his Peace Corps service in Ethiopia. And what a journey! There were breakdowns, encounters with armed soldiers, gorilla bands, and rock-throwing children as he biked from Djibouti to outside of Arusha, Kenya. These were punctuated with flat tires, broken spokes, floods, and detours.

One of my favorite passages is in the chapter entitled Hell Week. Henning is biking down the road when he encounters a bare-breasted, bare-footed woman sitting beneath a tree holding a very large spear. As he passed her, “She sprang up onto her feet, raised her spear, and running behind me she screamed at the top of her lungs. The hair stood up on the back of my neck . . . I rode for nearly an hour on the horrific road paranoid that an ambush was coming.” What an adventure!

Henning’s voice describes every possible emotion — elation, contentment, pride, depression, and despair. He experiences friendship, love, fear, admiration, profound sadness, and obsession with his own self-made rules. His writing is always direct and honest even as he jumps from sadness over lost love, misery over breakdowns, fear of being physically attacked, and anger with the rock-throwing kids. He never whines. Somehow despite the disasters and disappointments, he does not give in to self-pity. And even though he accomplishes his goal, his return to the Western world was not an easy one.

I found the epilogue to be courageously honest.

Admitting to being miserable and depressed Henning accepts an opportunity with the Peace Corps once again, this time in the Philippines as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer. It is there that he began to put his life back together both by accepting healthy friendships, and with therapy.

The story continues in New Orleans, Oregon, and back to Ethiopia. There are many stories in between the first frightening night beside the road near Djibouti and the triumphant summit of Kilimanjaro and life after that journey. The good-hearted hell-bent young obsessive man has a strong finish, “I lived to tell the tale, raised some money for charity, and learned something along the way. That is what life is all about.”

Cynthia Mosca (Ethiopia 1967–69) spent over forty years in the field of education. She has taught all ages and ended her career as the Director of Language Minority Services in  Cicero, Illinois. She has also served as adjunct faculty for several Chicago area colleges, where she taught graduate courses in bilingual education.

Cynthia is currently part of a 4-person Peace Corps Virtual Service Project in Ethiopia, and is a member of the EERPCV board. She recently published through Peace Corps Writers Imprint, Letters from a Wondrous Empire, an epistolary memoir.

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