A black Giant Talon 29er-4 mountain bicycle, some money, part of it gifted by friends, and a head spinning with love: These are what Bill Clintone Linyelela needed to get him on through the 2,201km journey from Nairobi to Mekéle, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia.
On August 30, just before dawn, carrying only of his smartphone and the app Strava, the 27-year-old solitary cyclist set out on a rather hasty journey.
The 16-day trip would not only test his mettle to the core, leave him with physical injuries and see him nearly turn around when the thought of returning home seemed sensible, but would also end rather unexpectedly and leave him in tears.
The inspiration for Linyelela’s journey during a pandemic started two years ago. On February 27, 2018, to mark his birthday, Linyelela had gone to the central business district of Nairobi to buy a gift for himself. He was browsing in clothing stalls on Biashara Street when he saw her.
“Merry Kidane Asgedom was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I said ‘hi’, and she gave the most enchanting smile and a ‘hi’ back. I chatted her up a little and then asked for her number. She gave it to me, and I almost forgot what I was doing there.”
Asgedom, an Ethiopian doctor on a short visit to Kenya, left for Ethiopia a few days later. But in the coming days and months a friendship between the pair kindled into a long-distance love affair. Linyelela visited her in Ethiopia twice; she visited him in Nairobi twice and was going to introduce him to her mother on April 14, a step he imagined would catapult their relationship to the next level. However, the coronavirus pandemic hit and life as we knew it came to a sudden stop.
“She had taken her leave days and I had booked my air ticket,” narrates Linyelela. “Then Kenya was put under a partial lockdown and travel restrictions imposed. I could no longer fly to Ethiopia.”
But a restless Linyelela couldn’t keep still. Four months down the road, in August, the airspace had been reopened but the restaurateur had to shut down his restaurant in Parklands Nairobi, in compliance with Covid-19 related restrictions. His finances fell short and he could no longer afford an air ticket. All the same, he decided he was going to Ethiopia. And he started to see his bicycle as his new ticket to his girlfriend.
“At some point, my finances had gotten so bad that I couldn’t even call Merry anymore. I was behind on rent. So I called her up one evening and told her that was the last call I was making to Ethiopia until I could get some money,” recounts Linyelela.
The following day he received Ksh300 ($3) from a colleague of hers in Ethiopia. “This just blew my mind. I used all of it on airtime to call her,” says Linyelela, a statistician by profession.
“This had just pumped the urge to just hold her in a hug. That little act caused me to make up my mind finally,” he said.
On various Whatsapp groups, he asked friends whether it was a wise idea to cycle to Ethiopia. “About 75 per cent of my friends thought I was being irrational. The reasons given were varied – from the fact that there was still an ongoing pandemic, that I did not have car support, and that this was a route I hadn’t been on before,” he recalls. “But then I went with the few that encouraged me. Someone said ‘sure I know you can do it’. And that was all I needed to hear.” Read more.