One of the first things I noticed about Neema John was her toenails.
But given her limited means, Neema's elaborate pedicure - pearly pink nails overlaid with a white and black feather pattern - surprised me when we met. I complimented them, and asked where (read: where on earth!?) she got them done. Her neighborhood is packed with muddy fruit stalls, corrugated metal shacks selling cell-phone credit, and barbecue-and-fries stands painted with ads for Safari Lager. The periodic one-stool hair salons are open erratically, due to power cuts. There are definitely not nail salons.
"Oh!" she said, and dashed out of the room. She came back looking crestfallen. "He" had gone for the day.
"He," it emerged, was the neighborhood's itinerant nail polisher. He came along the footpaths of the neighborhood every few days, like an ice cream truck, whistling in a distinctive way. You'd hear him, run
outside, and he'd offer up an array of nail polishes, and paint you on the spot. She was very disappointed that I'd missed him.
This afternoon, though, as we were talking in her room, she suddenly bolted off the bed and dashed outdoors. A few minutes later, she returned triumphantly: He was here.
Aloisia, our interpreter, Neema, Briton - "Tony" to his friends, I've discovered - and I trooped outside. And there "he" was: a tall fellow in a boating hat with a small Tupperware container packed with remover, cotton, and polish. We plunked down on the dirty steps of Neema's building, and he painted our nails right there, to the delight of a cluster of neighbor kids.
The nail polish guy had one design that he repeated methodically on all 20 of our toes with his delicate, one-hair brushes. We paid 75 cents apiece, and had to tiptoe inside after to keep the mud and grit from lodging in the polish.
Now, every time I take my sandals off to wash the mud out, I'm startled and delighted all over again by my lurid purple toes and the memory of the slum-stoop pedicure.
Travel in Tanzania for this project is supported by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, in Washington DC.