SAM’S STORY by Paul M Southwick
Early one May 2014 spring afternoon I found myself out for walk with my father in law on the road that follows the Prut river south from Leova, in western Moldova. Moldova, a former Soviet Republic, is a small, land locked, beautiful and historic, wine growing country in Eastern Europe squeezed between The Ukraine and Romania. It is on the road to and at the top of the list of countries being courted by the EU for membership in the very near future.
Way in the distance we saw someone indistinct moving most slowly towards us on the busy road. As we got closer we realised it was an old lady, perhaps between 70 and 80, crouched over and progressing at no more than one or two kph. She was dressed beautifully and carried no bag, food or drink, but had in her hand a small rope, more of a sting really, attached to which, and dragging behind, was a rickety old trolley with barely functioning wheels, on top of which was a huge and very heavy red gas canister. My father in law said hello to her in the Moldovan language, which I do not speak, and on we walked.
But I could not get her out of my mind. Who was this lady and what was she doing walking on the road more than 5km from the nearest civilisation? Where was her family and what did she know about Moldova’s entry to the EU?
After completed our walk I told my Australian wife, Katie (we live in Melbourne), who was born in Leova, about our encounter. She rightly insisted, as my conscience had been telling me, that we immediately go back in the car, to find the old lady, and see if we could help.
We found her still on the very busy road, just starting her return journey at about 3pm, dodging heavy trucks and cars alike. She was being shadowed by 5 or 6 wild dogs. We took her in our car. Here is her story:
Sam is 71 years old. Her husband died 22 years ago and left her all alone in a very old, run down, wooden cottage, in a tiny country village down a dirt road 5.8km from the nearest petrol station. She has two children, one, a son, who lives in Moscow, who she has not heard from in 12 years, and another a daughter, who lives in Moldova, but visits only very rarely – probably years apart.
For cooking Sam needs to use gas. There is no piped gas connection to her house and electricity is unquestionable too expensive for her, so she must rely on a large refillable canister. Her canister was empty and so she needed to have it refilled. But no one in her tiny village, despite many being asked, would help her get to the filling station.
Her only choice was to walk the 12 hour, 11.6km return journey, which includes an extremely steep muddy track for the first 700m, pulling or more like dragging, the small, four wheel cart behind her. The day we met her Sam had set out at 8am and when we found her the first thing she said was “I have no money to pay you for the lift”. She was crying and said “I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it back home by dark and would have to sleep in a field on the side of the road until tomorrow” (where she could fall victim to thieves or even foxes and wild wolves that roam the picturesque countryside). We also found out she had not had enough money to fill the canister and had paid for about 2/3rds of its capacity.
So the first thing we did was drive back to the station to fill up the canister for her. We drove her home and gave her some money to help with expenses. The next day we did a huge shop for her at the local supermarket of essential food items, especially rice, sugar, salt, cooking oil and flour, and arranged with the priest of the local church for someone to give her a ride in the future. We then paid her a visit and dropped off the provisions.
What a lovely and friendly lady she is. She could not understand who we were or why we helped her, perhaps remembering all the vehicles that pass her on the road each time she makes the journey – about 3 or 4 times per year. She asked “Who are you working for?” and said she had been thinking of us all night as we had of her. She gave us her phone number and will keep in touch to make sure she is all right in the future.
Reflecting on our incredible experience we couldn’t help marvelling at her determination and wondering if the bureaucrats in Chisinau and Brussels have Sam and those like her in mind when Moldova joins the EU. Will her life improve, or will all the funds flow to nice, visible projects in beautiful areas? We hope Sam is not forgotten and helping her and people like her become a central focus.