Courage on the Island of Widows

January 23, 2012

By Oswaldo Rivas

We got up before dawn to travel to the Island of Guanacastal, a community 130 km (80 miles) north of Managua, Nicaragua. My travel companions were silent, some lost in their thoughts and others sleeping, shivering due to the cold of the early morning hours.

As we passed Chichigalpa, a small and peaceful town near the San Cristobal volcano and where the famous Nicaraguan rum Flor de Cana is made, we started seeing the immense sugar cane plantations, the main component in the production of sugar and rum.

Shortly after leaving the main road we finally reached the island, now more commonly known as the Island of the Widows. More than 100 women of the 250 families living in the small village have lost their husbands to chronic renal failure, a disease that paralyzes kidney function by preventing the body from eliminating waste and excess fluid.

During our visit, we listened to the sad stories told by a 25-year-old who had just lost her husband recently and of a 60-year-old who had been crying for her dead husband for many years. The common ground; all their men worked in the sugar cane fields.

We met Dona Cristina washing clothes in the Chipaska river, near the town. She is 50 years old and the mother of six children. As she takes care of the house and the smallest children, the older ones help her financially.

At first, she didn’t want to talk to us, but finally she said, “Life is not easy and my memories are very sad.” She not only lost her husband, but also her youngest brother to the same sickness. As I watched her washing the clothes in the river water, I suddenly remembered one of the theories why so many men might have died of chronic kidney disease: the alleged contamination of the water with chemicals used in the sugar cane fields.

People in the village commented that all the water is contaminated, the water coming out of the faucet and the wells, which is used to irrigate the fields. I thought to myself, what would I do if someone offered me a glass of water, how could I reject it without offending anyone, luckily I was never offered any.

In the village we saw women who had not only lost their husbands, but also sons and brothers. Others were taking care of their ailing male family members.

Dona Dominga Jarquin is 54 years old and works as a domestic helper in Chichigalpa. She makes 1,018 Cordobas Oro (about $45) a month. She lost her husband ten years ago due to kidney failure. Her daughter Maria Tobar, whom she shares a small house with, is facing now the same situation. Her husband was diagnosed a year ago with chronic renal failure and can’t work any longer. Maria is working now in the sugar cane fields wielding a machete. While she plants sugar cane, her husband looks for help in the medical centers in the neighboring cities. But everybody knows that his chances are slim.

Dona Maria Ulloa is 52 years old and her husband died 3 years ago, her son three months ago. Her eldest son, Antonio Zapata, is in the final stage of the sickness and bed-ridden in a hospital in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. Her home was impeccably clean but I could feel the poverty everywhere. Doña Maria told us about her economic woes, making a great effort to hold back her tears she said “My pain is so big,” and tears started rolling down her face. A moment later she got up, dried her tears and with a smile returned to her daily chores.

The dignity of these women amidst the tragedy is impressive. Most have gone through the ordeal of seeing their men dying a slow and painful death. But they manage to keep going, taking care of their homes and their children, working either in other people’s homes or replacing the deceased in the sugar cane fields.

Maybe the pain they are going through makes them stronger. To take the machete and enter the cane fields bathed in chemicals that might have killed their husbands, sons and brothers to be able to bring home a living for their children – now, that’s courage!

One comment

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I think one should be more careful when tackling a health problem such as Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). I do not believe it’s appropriate to do so simply on the basis of what some of the affected say, without a minimum of research on the topic.

The deep respect we feel for the suffering of these people should not lead us to take for granted that the causes of the disease are linked to what they say, and therefore make veiled accusations against companies operating in the sector.

The productive practices of the sugar mills in the western part of Nicaragua are the same of the sugar industry around the world.

Furthermore, for example, Ingenio San Antonio (ISA), property of Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited (NSEL), employs mechanical and biological pest control, practically eliminating all use of pesticides.

The agrochemicals that this company applies are properly registered in the competent ministries of the State of Nicaragua and they are also registered in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

As a result of an agreement between Asochivida, the country’s largest association of CKD patients, and NSEL, Boston University is currently undertaking a comprehensive study on the causes of CKD in the West region of the country. In one of the conclusive parts of the report of August 2010, it is said: “Based on the investigation described in this report, we found no evidence to conclude that work practices and chemicals used by ISA are causing CRI in ISA workers. Establishing whether there is in fact an association will require the creation of new scientific knowledge.”

The Office of the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman – CAO – stated in a press release on January 26, 2012, among other things: “ (…) Boston University’s work builds on that of other researchers and indicates that the unusual form of CKD observed in former NSEL workers is prevalent throughout the Pacific zone of Central America, goes beyond sugarcane workers impacting workers in other industries, and has also been identified in Asia. (…) Boston University’s work is unprecedented in Nicaragua considering its scope, rigor, and unrestricted access to the company’s operations. (…) Medical needs for the sick are profound, particularly in light of the lack of options for medication, dialysis, and kidney transplant. These needs are being addressed by proposed improvements to the community health center in Chichigalpa. NSEL and ASOCHIVIDA are also working together to provide food aid, develop a microcredit program, and provide income generation projects to support affected community members. Throughout the dialogue process, NSEL has provided about US$4 million in support to community members through ASOCHIVIDA. (…) “Given the scope and magnitude of this disease, long term solutions will likely require a regional framework for research into its cause, inevitably linked to public policy.” said Meg Taylor, CAO and Vice President, World Bank Group. “It is CAO’s hope that broader engagement will lead to a collaborative effort during 2012 to tackle chronic kidney disease in Central America.””

( Mediastatement_Nicaraguachronickidneydis ease_012612.pdf)

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