Lead poisoning from industrial pollution has imposed a terrible toll on Kenyans, and single mother Phyllis Omido is no exception – lead from a nearby metal refinery badly damaged her own son’s health. But it was when she decided to fight back against the polluters that a whole new realm of threats and dangers opened up.
Single mother Phyllis Omido from Mombasa, Kenya, lives at an undisclosed address with her nine year old son. CCTV cameras monitor the place at night and she has a panic button on a bracelet which can trace her whereabouts were she suddenly to disappear. The nightmare started in 2009 when Omido realised her baby boy had been poisoned by her own breast milk because she had been exposed to high levels of lead through her job managing community relations at a lead smelter in Owino Uhuru, one of Mombasa’s shanty towns. The smelting plant, owned by Metal Refineries EPZ Ltd, emitted toxic fumes laden with lead and exposed workers and the local community to dangerous chemicals. Untreated waste water from the plant spilled into streams which residents use to wash, cook and clean. Lead levels in the soil increased nearly tenfold within the first twelve months of the factory opening.
Omido has now won the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa – the world’s largest prize for grassroots environmental activists – for the courageous campaigning work which brought the whole community together in the fight against the company and the Kenyan government. After extensive investigations, peaceful protests and letter-writing campaigns the plant closed down in January 2014. The 36-year old says winning the prize was “a shock and an amazing feeling” and that it will help gain credibility for an upcoming court case. “It’s very exciting times. Just the fact that someone recognises what we are doing and that we are not on the wrong side of the law.”
Omido had an office position, but many other workers at the plant faced direct exposure to chemicals. They were provided one pair of thin cotton gloves per month which disintegrated after only a few days. Meanwhile, managers entering the factory did so in full protective gear. While working at the plant, Omido initiated an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) procedure. The factory was by this time fully operational, meaning that the Kenyan government had overlooked the legal requirements for an EIA to be conducted before the plant opened. The EIA report recommended closing the factory and relocating away from residential areas. This was rejected, however. Omido was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement and was moved to another position within the company.
Anger lead to action
Her son, King David, now nine years old, was at the time hospitalised for a month due to lead poisoning received from Omido’s breast milk after being exposed to lead on a daily basis. Omido got some compensation, but only to cover hospital costs of $2000. She says it was the anger of seeing her son suffer that motivated her to start the campaign. At first, her employers tried to silence her, but when she saw the rest of the community, many living on less than a pound per day, having to cope with children in hospital and the subsequent bills, she felt that the situation was too bad to ignore: “Something had to be done. I believe anyone in my shoes would have done the same thing.” She went to the plant and started telling people about the poisoning, but she didn’t get people on her side straight away. Shortly after that, an employee who worked close to the furnace passed out.
He was removed from the site and died later at his home, an incident that triggered the mobilisation of the workforce. “They started joining me, and some of them quit their jobs and started seeking help”, says Omido. Still, a further two employees died before the plant closed down. Omido left her job at the factory and began cleaning houses and working with the community to assess the impact of the pollution. She raised money to carry out blood tests on local residents and found that 14 out of 15 tested had high lead levels. She then convinced the local health centre to test for lead pollution. Tests showed dangerously high levels of lead for children. Further investigations also revealed that animals such as chickens kept in people’s back yards died after drinking the water, children living nearby developed fevers and stomach problems and pregnant women had miscarriages and stillbirths.
Many still awaiting compensation
Omido alleges that the Kenyan government was complicit in exposing workers and locals to lead pollution, and is now taking them to court with the help of two pro-bono litigators from Advocates Sans Frontieres, in Brussels. “Let them justify the decisions that they made. Why did they decide to license a smelter right in the middle of a community?” She adds that those affected are still awaiting compensation and hopes the court case might help facilitate this. For example, she says, there are mothers whose wombs had to be removed because they had carried children who had died because of lead poisoning and so they cannot get pregnant again. “You can never compensate a lost womb, but they need to take responsibility”, she adds. She is currently awaiting test results conducted by the Ministry of Health and Centre for Disease Control in the US to use in court. She says they are trying to quantify the contribution of the smelter to the lead levels, so they can prove that it was responsible for poisoning the community. Omido says her main objective with the lawsuit is to create a precedent for future cases. “Because the amount of complaints we are getting from Kenyans all around the country are very similar to what these people went through. And they need a precedent in court that they can use in the future to get justice.”
Great personal risks
Whilst campaigning, Omido escaped a possible kidnapping and has been arrested and imprisoned for her work. “They sent armed people after me, to wait for me at my house in the evening. That is the night that I fled and went to where I live now.
She says that up until last month she received text messages from unknown international numbers threatening her and her son and telling her: “Stop talking about the Owino Uhuru case.” She speaks about these threats very calmly and shows little sign of fear, as if she has grown used to it, but she tells me it wasn’t always like this. “At first it was really bad. Like in 2012. I could not sleep in my bed. I would hold my son and I would put a mattress under the bed so that if someone peeked through the window they wouldn’t have been able to see us. I was terrified.” “Sometimes I get afraid, but I think now it’s not as bad as it was in the beginning. The way the case has progressed now, I know they have very few options. They can kill me, but they will not silence the case”, she adds. While her family advised her to look out for her son’s safety and give up the case, Omido says she received invaluable support from the organisations Frontline Defenders and Human Rights Watch. They helped her see the importance of the case internationally, to feel that she was not alone and that she had possibilities for seeking support. “That helped a lot, just working with these people and them taking action on behalf of the community, so that there’s not just me taking action.”
Setting up her own Business and Human Rights organisation
Prior to starting at the smelter, Omido studied business management at the University of Nairobi and she has ten years experience working in industry in Kenya. Today, she works full-time at her own organisation CJGEA – the Center for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action which she founded in 2009 and which promotes environmental justice in Kenya’s coastal regions. “We get so many complaints, you would not believe it”, she says. She says the people who come with new cases often travel from very poor communities which have collected money so that one person can find her and report the case. She says that, for example, there have been reports of mercury poisoning in mines and in one place 200 cows were poisoned by leaks into their water. When her organisation got involved, the company agreed to pay compensation to the community straight away. “But there are also other industries who just don’t care,” she adds. She also runs mentorship programmes for school children through the organisation to raise awareness and educate the communities of environmental protection and human rights. “It’s going great!” she says, and her face lights up. It is clear that this is an issue close to her heart. “It’s better than I thought,” she laughs, “they are very motivated kids. I want to see if we can raise enough money to make them have a competition this year where we award the best poem about the environment.”
Potential brain damage
Thankfully, her son has recovered well. However, she is awaiting tests for long term brain damage due to the lead poisoning which, she says, she is reluctant to do. “I don’t want him growing up thinking there is something wrong with him.” She is a confident, determined and to-the-point woman, but when she speaks about her boy her voice softens and her eyes light up. She tells me proudly that he wants to be an animal rights activist when he grows up. “He says he doesn’t like the way people treat animals. And he wants to be a vegetarian, he has a mind of his own.” Unfortunately, not all community members were as lucky as her son, she adds. Some of them could not afford care or more extensive tests. Around 3,000 people still live near the factory, although there are concerns that the environment may still be contaminated and toxic.
Creating an environmental impact database
Omido is now devoting all her time to fighting similar cases around the country. A large part of the $175,000 prize money will be put into her non-profit organisation, she says. “At least now we don’t have to worry. The rent is coming up, salaries are coming up, so at least it has sorted that for us for a while.” Her future plans include continuing to expand. “I would like to make a ‘one stop shop’ for the environment. I want us to have a database of all possible industries coming up in Kenya. Who owns them? What is their impact? Have them all accessible from our office. “We want to have full research and access to all EIAs, because right now, when we get complaints, there is a push and pull with governments to access the information.” Omido is clearly a courageous woman who against all the odds has fought hard to protect her family and community. She has a vision for a brighter future for Kenya’s working communities as well. To others who may think of taking action, she says: “Don’t be afraid. Do what is right. This thing happened because too many people were quiet. We really have to stand up and do what is right, especially for the environment. It concerns all of us. “It doesn’t matter how much money you earn in life – if you don’t leave a clean, healthy, sustainable environment for your children, you have done nothing.”
Phyllis Omido is one of six winners of the prestigious international Goldman Environmental Prize which honours and recognises individuals struggling to win environmental victories against the odds and inspires ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to protect the world’s natural resources. Winners are selected from each of the six inhabited continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America. Visit the website for more information on the other winners.
I wrote this article for the Ecologist in April 2015.