Wendy’s wheels & Leonid Kravchuk’s legacy for an independent Ukraine

In 2016, Christmas came to us in a red spotted, plastic clad shopping trolley. It was probably the most generous, timely and thoughtfully put together collection of presents, foodstuffs and alcoholic beverages ever received by the Campbell family. The ginormous cuts of fresh meat were then complimented with a free bag of vegetables from the nearby Church, including a celeriac tuber which needed some research work before preparation. I had no idea what it was or how to cook it!

Wendy was herself an exile, a refugee of sorts from Tanzania. She knew exactly how we felt and what we had been through, though hers was a failed marriage, a tussle over the custody of two young children and resultant difficulties at work. A growing anxiety regarding her own wellbeing and safety in Tanzania resulted in a rapid exit and crash landing back in the UK. Finding a place to live, a school for the kids, a job and some emotional support is never going to be easy let alone doing it all in one go. On top of this Wendy had a sense of deep isolation to deal with. It is difficult for others to see when you don’t look or speak like a typical refugee. Having all the right connections does little to ease the psychological trauma. Wendy’s father was a former politician and her brother a well-known author but that made little difference.

Wendy came to York uninvited. She knew we would say “no” if asked. She knew our pride would be hurting beyond belief. But she also knew we needed help and needed it desperately. She knew the the reasons we had practically cut ourselves off from everything and everyone we had known before and she knew more than anything else, and more than everyone, that we needed practical assistance before anything else.

Wendy knew us all too well, and knew that neither Jill nor I had any desire to own or drive a car in our new surroundings. We had always enjoyed the luxury of a driver in Ethiopia and permanent access to a company vehicle. The shopping trolley would now have to serve as our “wheels”… a veritable taxi, haulage and general service vehicle. It did the school run, the shopping and transported everything Jill needed to and from her new job as a care assistant. Once the Christmas treats had been emptied out of the trolley, we put it to immediate use.

After several heavy shifts, waitressing and dishwashing at the race-course and an unforgettable new year’s eve, 2015, when both Jill and I worked together with Joshua, she finally secured steady work as a care assistant. Jill was tasked with looking after three disabled customers (or ‘service users’ as the jargon goes). Assisted living in their own home meant that Jill would need to take all the food and clothing she might need for a sleep over and back-to-back shift. Wendy’s wheels were invaluable once again and over the next 4 or 5 years they must have clocked up a couple of thousand miles in all. The red, spotted, plastic bag eventually gave way and split down the side, the wheels dropped off once or twice but were amenable to repair and Wendy’s wheels soldiered on. Eventually we did buy another set of wheels in a more stylish shade of brown, but they were set aside for race days when instead of doing the washing-up and cleaning I was afforded the luxury of sitting in the enclosure sharing a picnic and actually watching the horses go by. Into 2016, and I was drafted back into overseas aid work. Things were looking up at last.

Most recently, Jill’s colleagues chipped in together and for her 60th birthday bought her yet another upgrade. A larger, more sturdy model, somewhat akin to a family size SUV for those in a different wage bracket! And Wendy’s wheels were finally set aside, awaiting transportation to the nearest municipal waste collection facility.

Then in April 2022, I returned home from Sudan, out of contract and short of work once again. The situation was no-where near as desperate as those dreadful days in 2015/16 but a temporary gig picking, packing and shipping shoes in a warehouse on the outskirts of York kept a trickle of money coming in and gave me breathing space to look for the next posting overseas.

Casual labouring and zero hours contracting has its own, more sublime benefits; the wages not being one of them! Firstly, it is a reminder of how the mighty can fall, so easily and perhaps all too frequently, and how we might take God’s grace and favour all too lightly. On the other hand, it was a pleasure to cast off the apparent responsibility for innumerable ‘beneficiaries’ living on the edge and to do something easy, repetitive and non-essential. Obviously, people need their shoes and expect them to arrive the next day and the company needs to fulfil its obligations to ensure profitability, dividends for its stakeholders and salaries for its staff and I was the tiniest, but nevertheless an important part of that eco-system for two months.

By day two I was trained in nearly everything I needed to know but all too quickly I could see enormous inefficiencies in the job and deficiencies in the equipment at hand. I knew that taping up a cardboard box each night, dragging it up and down two flights of stairs and then walking it up and down kilometres of shelving was daft. And it struck me immediately that Wendy’s wheels could be reprieved. A few alterations here and there, with cable-ties strategically placed to stop the shoe boxes from falling through the frame and with a perfectly size bungy attached top to bottom I was ready on day three for combat! It worked perfectly and I was so proud of myself. It was impossible to measure one’s own efficiency against that of a colleague’s as there were too many variables in each ‘pick’ but I was definitely more efficient myself than when I was dragging a carboard box around behind me like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Wendy’s souped-up wheels had the handling characteristics of a Porsche when compared to the carboard box alternative, especially going up and down the stairs but it would need a whole time and motion study to describe the intricate details and no one in the warehouse ever bothered to really investigate. And that was very strange too. I suspect that people had been doing things one way for so long they were unwilling to give something new a chance, and besides; shopping trolleys are for old people. They are not cool and you have to be a wally, desperate or simply not interested in your own image to use one. Anyhow, the call to go abroad again finally came through and within a fortnight I was heading out to Ukraine. Wendy’s wheels were parked up and all thoughts of shopping trolleys were put to one side (the actual wheels were pack away carefully at home in case I end up going back to the warehouse on my return).

It took me five days to get from York to Dnipro, 200 odd kilometers from the war front and five more to get a reasonable picture of what the job consisted. In such a fluid and rapidly changing environment, with people on the move and water supply systems under constant threat our team were concentrating on the delivery of basic hygiene kits for families, for children and for the elderly. On day two there was a question in the WASH Cluster meeting – “what was included in a typical kit” and no one had the answer ready so I decide to go with my logistics manager to see for myself. We unpacked some samples, took photos and discovered for ourselves the dead weight of the largest ‘elderly person’s kit’. Approximately 10kgs in an oversized, NRC branded bag, containing incontinence pads as well as the usual hygiene products. It struck both Rob and I, that this was way too heavy for an 80 year old to carry away with ease and we began to think of alternatives. Then our local guys suggested a ‘Kravchuchka’!

In the late eighties and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonid Kravchuk became the first president of the newly independent Ukraine. Such were the times and economic upheaval, prices skyrocketed, incomes went down, people lost their jobs and thousands had to look for alternative means of survival. Many set off to the borders of Ukraine where goods could be bought and cheaply imported, transported inland and then resold at a profit. But this all had to be done individually and by hand and on foot. Consequently, there was a brisk trade in shopping trolleys and they soon became ubiquitous and so much so, in Leonid’s honour and/or disgrace they were knicknamed ‘Kravchuchkas’. Everyone's favourite means of transport and haulage in difficult times. This is what my Ukrainian colleagues explained to me. We were passing by the out-of-town shopping centre on the way back to the office and so decided to check out the prices and availability of a Kravchuk; cheap at a mere 480 UAH (GB£ 13.50). I bought my own for old-time’s sake and used it that evening for my shopping.

So what would it cost in time and effort and money to deliver hygiene kits and especially those destined for the elderly (and perhaps NRC food kits) and much more to Ukrainians on the move, in branded, re-usable and highly mobile shopping trolleys/Kravchuchkas. A simple and cheap solution giving some of the most vulnerable and needy people increased mobility and added agility for a mere £13.50!

Am I just being crazy again or does Wendy’s gift of wheels to a desperate couple in dire straits, just keep rolling?