Dancing with Flashcards

It was a hot dry morning in rural Nicaragua when I found myself waving a “red heart” flashcard in front of group of fifth graders. Jumping up and down and shouting “Heart!”, was my new mission in life. For this moment, it was all that mattered. The next moment I was thrusting a “Green Circle” card over my head and shouting “Circle!”. The children’s answering chorus of “Circle!” sent a wave of chills across my face and down my back. I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of these children, their desire to learn these simple english words. What may be simple words and shapes to you and me, are a bridge to life for these children. These words are the beginnings of knowing a language that opens many doors. Doors that let them follow a path away from a seemingly predetermined life filled with poverty and death.

You might think I’m overstating the death aspect, so let me give you a brief synopsis of life among the cane fields. In the last ten years 46% of male deaths in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua were from a disease known as CKDu. That’s Chronic Kidney Disease of an unknown cause to those of us without a medical background. It’s a degenerative, progressive loss of kidney function with no cure.

A transplant would allow for a better life, even though the victim would always be a kidney patient. However it really doesn’t matter, because that transplant is about as affordable in this community as a walk on the moon to you and me. Hospital dialysis is virtually impossible to get, and home dialysis is extremely dangerous because of the challenges maintaining sterile conditions when your house has a dirt floor. Infections resulting from the home dialysis are common and lethal.

While the cause of CKDu is unknown, we do know that most of the victims are working age men between 15 and 35. The most likely culprit, or at least the catalyst that triggers the disease, is thought to be the extreme working conditions. Starting at about 15 years of age the young men start working in the cane fields for twelve hours a day, seven days a week, six months a year. They sometimes get about four days off every fifteen days, or whenever they reach the point of physical collapse. Don’t think they’re relaxing the other six months of the year, they can’t simply can’t afford it. The rest of the time they’re doing other things like planting, irrigation, security and mini-harvests.

One day of harvesting when properly hydrated will cause them to loose 2.2 kg of water weight, or about 5 lbs. If you’ve ever trained for a marathon or other endurance sport, you’ll know how hard it is to safely replace that amount of water. You’ll also know how much you didn’t feel like doing that level of exertion again the next day, much less for several consecutive days. If you haven’t trained for something at that level, let me give you the numbers 5 and 15. It would take between 5 and 15 liters of water per day, just to maintain hydration. You can’t just throw that in your backpack in the morning, and there is essentially nowhere for them to get water during the day.


Allison, another volunteer and our sixth grade class. Notice the intensity of their studies!Allison, another volunteer and our sixth grade class. Notice the intensity of their studies!
Allison, another volunteer and our sixth grade class. Notice the intensity of their studies!30-Aug-2013 23:26
The school where I found myself teaching english that day serves the “La Isla” community, also known as “La Isla de la Viudas” or Island of Widows. The boys talk about working in the cane fields like their fathers, uncles and brothers, and dying from bad kidneys. In fact they joke about it as easily as my friends and I used to joke that “Nobody gets out of life alive.” We were thinking 70 or 80, not 20 to 35.

In a culture where friends and family are everything, you can’t just move away to find a better job. Especially if you don’t have the education that allows you to get that better job. Education levels are low, illiteracy is high, and almost all the jobs in this area involve work with the cane fields.

So I ran to the back of the class and high-fived a young girl who had just found the “Heart Circle” square on her bingo card. For her, finding “Heart Circle” on that bingo card, wasn’t just a step toward shouting bingo. It wasn’t about being applauded by the gringo volunteers and a classfull of her peers.

It was a step toward a life where maybe she wouldn’t have to bury her brothers, her husband, and eventually her sons before they were 35. For the boy next to her, it meant he might not have to work 84+ hours a week in extreme heat until his kidneys fail. Where he is left unable to provide for his family through disability or death. A life undervalued and lost before it’s time.

Carlos let us label his body parts to help his class learn the words!Carlos let us label his body parts to help his class learn the words!
Carlos let us label his body parts to help his class learn the words!30-Aug-2013 23:27

Thanks to the La Isla Foundation, I can be a part of the difference. I can help give these children stepping stones to a brighter future.

How can you not jump up and down about that?

!! Bingo !!

Suggested viewing:

Cycle of Death

La Isla Foundation Community Programs

Further reading:

La Isla Foundation: About the Epidemic and Current CKDu Events

NBC News: Mystery kidney disease decimates Central America sugarcane workers

Public Integrity: Island of Widows

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