“Just write it down, ” Don Luis the community leader says, pointing at the survey sheet, “just write down that they sweep every day, change clothes and do dishes”.
A barefoot child runs past him into the dwelling. His shirt is crusted with food and his bare feet are caked with dirt. His mother sways impatiently back and forth from one leg to the other on her thin frame, her eyes dart from the dust and unwashed dishes and clothes visible through the half-shut door to her other child playing in the gutter and finally to the three pages of surveys laid out on the teenagers knees.
“Fine, ” the teenager says, a pen perched between his slender hands “I’ll write that it’s clean”.
The Nicaraguan sun beats down on my neck. Here, high up in the mountains of the North, in the capital of one of Nicaragua’s poorest departments the nights are a blessing – cool and dry, unlike the hot, moist heat in the south of the country. The days however are hell; the midday sun burns my white neck in a matter of seconds. In the outlying slums, where we are doing annual home visits and surveys, the hard, cracked mud streets and red dust covering the streets make the heat seem even more oppressive.
The teenager, Don Luis’s grandson, fills in one of the three blank lines. Don Luis looks over his glasses at the sheet of the paper.
“Espérate, espérate! Wait, wait!” he says in exasperation, the veins in his forehead throbbing, “What did you write here? What does this say” Why didn’t you fill in all of the lines? They said I had to fill out all of the lines! I told you to write: ‘sweeps every day. Full stop. Changes clothes every day. Full stop.’”
He punctuates each full stop by tapping his excessively long fingernail on the page. He just has one long fingernail, the one on his pinkie finger, but it protrudes about and inch past his finger and is filed to a point. I asked him once, why he had it. “For self defense” he had answered, brandishing it like a knife, “you never know who will jump you in these parts”.
The teenager shoves the survey into his grandfather’s hands. “Why don’t you just do it then!” he says with a surely look. Don Luis fumbles with the pen and the papers.
“Fine, I never get any help around here anyway!” Don Luis says. For a moment it looks as though he is going to smack the kid, but his hand stops short of the boys face and grabs the pen instead.
Don Luis turns back to the woman, who at this point is smiling maliciously at the interaction, an odd look on her face. “Next question, where were we…”
He glances back down at the survey. The women jabs her finger at a point on the paper.
“Why the fuck do I …”
“Don’t touch the paper!” Don Luis pulls the survey out of the way of her jabbing fingers.
“Here”, he scans the survey for the next question with his long fingernail, the black cracks in the surface of the nail accentuated by the off-yellow colour. The fingernail fascinates and disgusts me at the same time. I look at it, maybe a bit too intensely, my fingers itching with the urge to cut it off. It has fame throughout the slums, this fingernail, exceeding Don Luis’s already shady reputation for trying to grope young girls when he has the chance. In a country that used physical appearances as nicknames and descriptors, Don Luis is known throughout the slums as ‘that old dude with the long fingernail’.
“What…bas…basic…hyg…hig…hygen….oh read this!” Don Luis says.
He thrusts the survey under his grandson’s nose, and he accepts it grudgingly.
“What-basic-hygiene-in-this-house-do-you-practice, ” he asks in monotone voice, the whole sentence jammed into one emotionless word. He looks off to the side, bored.
“Oh that shit again,” the woman says, ‘‘vivir sano, vivir bonito,’” her voice has taken on a sarcastic tone, “‘vivir cómo Daniel Ortega”. She lets out a cackle, throwing her head back into her neck. The whole street turns its head in her direction and for a minute all one can hear is the echo of her laugh bouncing of the homogenous row of grey concrete building. She is the only one that is laughing at her joke.
“It’s a hard sickness to cure, ” says Don Luis, gesturing with his lips and a scrunch of his nose at the woman, now having a wild hand-gesturing conversation with the neighbour across the street.
“Which sickness?” she asks, her eyes locking onto his.
He taps his yellow fingernail at the back of his head and rolls his eyes at me. The woman throws her hands up and grabs one of her kids roughly by the arm.
“I’m not crazy!” she yells, her body suddenly stiff and angry “I’m not crazy and I am not filling out anymore of this shit! I’m gonna go wash my kid, you just tell them everything is fine, we’re all just great!”