After about 30 minutes of walking in the neighbourhood, Ismael Abdala Khamisi trudges home seemingly weary. Absent- mindedly, he opens the door of an old dusty car and sinks his fragile frame into a tattered chair to ease his fatigue. This abandoned car, parked across a trench of dirty water in Makina, Kibera slums, has served as his home for the past two years.
The father of two; 13 and 10 has returned home from washing his children’s clothes in a friend’s house nearby before embarking on offering some curious guests a tour of his ‘house’. “This is my bedroom,” he says, pointing to the backseat of the small car, which is draped by a faded bed sheet and stuffed with his clothes. His clothes, a cup, a bottle of water and a Quran sum up his few possessions. The front seat is where he relaxes—catching up with friends and reading the Quran. Occasionally, he smokes cigarettes to kill the cold at night and distract himself from disturbing thoughts. Groundnut peels that litter the front seat show a trace of the only meal he has had in several days.
A soft-spoken and humorous character, Ismael has been taking care of his children without a proper home after he lost his job and his wife left him in 2013. Then, his life had a totally different outlook. He worked as a water vendor in Kibera, earning between Sh500 and Sh600 per day. His income was adequate to comfortably sustain his wife, a stay at home mother and his two children. “I was paying a rent of Sh4,000 and providing for my family,” he says. But after 10 years of working, Ismael lost his job.
Soon after losing his job, cracks started to emerge in his marriage. The family was struggling to meet basic needs. Determined to salvage the situation, Ismael often looked for casual jobs to feed his family. Then one day, as he was out looking for work, his wife of over 10 years packed her things and left their two sons alone in the house.
On returning home, he went to her parents’ place, just near his home to find out about her whereabouts. “They said they had not seen her. However, I suspect that they knew, but they wouldn’t tell me,” he says. Ismael has not seen or communicated with his wife ever since. “She changed her mobile phone number,” he says.
With the responsibility of taking care of the children, Ismael rarely had time to go out and look for a job. He could no longer pay rent. He, therefore, took the children to his mother’s place in Busia and left them under her care.
At his wits end, he decided to move out of the rented house and reside in an abandoned car in the neighbourhood. With one expense off his list, he channelled the little money he earned from casual jobs to buying his food and sending the rest to pay for the fees of his children. Sadly, last year his mother passed on and he had to take the children under his care. “I worried a lot about where they were going to sleep,” he says. Ismael admits that sleeping in a car night after night is not for the faint-hearted. He has contracted colds several times and is still getting accustomed to the tough life.
Fortunately, a family friend in Kibera offered to host the children. Ismael works hard day after day to at least buy food for the children to eat and when he is not lucky, he counts on the generosity of the family friend. As for him, eating everyday is not guaranteed. It depends on his earnings for the day and when he does not get any work, he stays hungry. But going without meals is not the biggest concern for the 40-year-old. His children have not gone to school for a year due to lack of school fees.
“Talib, my eldest son, was in Class Five while Saidi was in Class Two last year. All I want for now is to see them enrolled in school. You know, education has potential to change someone’s circumstances,” he says. During the day, the children play in the neighbourhood and spend time with their father when he is not working. He is hopeful that one day, he will reunite with his wife, but not in the old car, he now calls home.