LA ISLA, Nicaragua -- Ursula Tobal knows the names of almost all the 20 widows who live on this tiny islet between two narrow streams, and almost all the orphaned children who play in the dusty fields.
The 40-year-old Tobal became a widow herself in late 2005 when her husband, Luis Abraham Martínez, a cane cutter at the nearby San Antonio sugar mill, died of the same disease that has earned this islet the nickname of Island of the Widows.
''My life has been very hard,'' said Tobal, who was left with 10 children and a social security payment of $74 a month. 'There have been times when I've had to put my children to bed telling them, `If you sleep, you won't feel hungry.' ''
The widows are just part of the human tragedy being wreaked in the Chichigalpa region of northwestern Nicaragua by chronic renal insufficiency (CRI), an illness whose cause remains a mystery.
Former mill and sugar-cane-field workers, dismissed when their kidneys showed signs of failing, now walk the streets aimlessly or sit on stools outside their homes. They cannot work, because they become exhausted within minutes.
''His agony was awful,'' Tobal said of her husband. ``He couldn't walk. That sickness takes away people's strength, affects their eyesight, bursts their innards, mouths and skin, and they vomit blood.''
All the victims can do is take calcium tablets to compensate for the loss of that element as a result of the kidney malfunction, and slow their deterioration.
But in the end, they can no longer stand, and they just lie in bed. Their bodies are swollen, their breathing labored. They sip Gatorade to keep hydrated. And they wait for death.
In La Isla, Ursula Tobal's son Nelson Moisés Martínez said that he began to cut cane at 14, and started to feel sick at 20. Now 24, he says his last checkup showed a creatinine level nearly eight times higher than normal.
He would like to work to help his widowed mother, he says, but he can't. He cracked a morbid joke about the guanacaste trees that cover the Chichigalpa cemetery.
''If I work, I die more quickly,'' he said, laughing a bit. "I'll go faster to the guanacastes.''
Is it strange that I link this story? I don't have any connection to it, and in fact, given my distance from it, you might be wondering why I've taken an interest in it--after all, it's not as if Australia will feel any moral obligation, even if all people be people in the world, and everyone everywhere has a right to clean water and not to be poisoned by chemicals as they work. However, I hear about it from Lucius Shepard (lucius_t in the theinferior4), and he talks about the things that people are trying to do--bottled water has, for example, just started to arrive--and it seems that one of the issues facing this story is just getting it talked about. This blog has an audience that runs between Australia, the States, the UK, and even Iceland, Germany, Russia, Israel, China, and more, which I can't remember off the top of my head. My linking it, gets it out just a little, which is not much, but it's something.