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Phyllis Omido

Phyllis Omido Phyllis Omido
14 Sep
Dubbed the ‘East African Erin Brockovich’, Phyllis Omido wasn’t an activist when she went to work at a Kenyan lead smelter. But when her breast milk made her baby sick, she began gathering evidence on the smelter’s damaging health effects

It was in 2007 that I saw an advert in the newspaper saying there was an organisation that wanted someone to do its administration work. When I started working there, I realised that this was not just a normal industry, but a smelter. The work going on there was very toxic. I came to this conclusion very fast.

I approached the owners and told them we couldn’t operate the smelter. I proposed that we find land in an open area with less of a human population and ensure with measures to keep the lead in the area we were occupying. At the same time, about three months into my work, I had a baby and was breastfeeding him. He started falling sick, and I had to stay in hospital for almost a month.

The first thing is to remove the source of poisoning because you cannot treat it while the contamination is still occurring. My son was lucky that I was not in the direct vicinity of the smelter. He was given a lot of milk to assist with breaking down the lead in his system.

After he tested positive I decided to sponsor three kids to take random tests to prove if this thing came from the smelter. All three tested positive and the levels were so much higher than my son’s. That was when I started to ask questions.

When I first started this campaign, women really reacted and accepted it, but workers at the smelter thought I was just being malicious because I had been fired. The whole campaign got momentum when one of the workers passed out. He was taken outside, given some air, went home and he died.

We reported to public health and nothing was done. So we circulated letters and sought meetings, but got no audience. Public health officers chased us out. They didn’t want to listen to us.

When we were marching out, the police stopped us and said they had received a call from the Assistant Minister of the Environment. He was coming down from Nairobi to talk to us. It was a tactic. He came, but he shared a podium with one of the directors. We said there were so many issues: that there was toxic smoke; that toxic water was poisoning the community; that the roofing sheets were getting holes in them. The plants were shrivelling and all the chickens had died.

Finally they said to the police ‘Beat them!’ And the police set us running. But because of the amount of noise we made, the media caught the story. Because of that, the smelter shut down in 2010 for about three weeks.

When they shut down we thought ‘Yeah, we did it.’ But three weeks later the smoke was back.

That was the worst time because we were not prepared for arrest. All these people in the community had faith that what we were doing was just. In 2012, 17 of us were arrested. We slept in the police cells for 16 hours and then were arraigned in court the next morning. The others were charged with illegal gathering while I was charged with inciting violence. So the charge sheet read ‘Phyllis Omido and 16 others’. We weren’t prepared and I hadn’t the money to bail us out.

They tried to prove I was inciting people against the smelter. The Kenyan penal code says you must have a weapon. The judge asked them to produce the weapon. They asked for more time. They asked for witnesses. So many witnesses. All the witnesses said we had placards, not weapons. We were chanting words, asking for our rights.

None of them could prove we had a weapon. Finally, the judge insisted to the prosecutors that ‘We are not wasting any more time, you had more than enough time to investigate. Now show us the weapon. Show us what weapons she had.’ They said, ‘Her weapon is her mouth. When she speaks she makes this community to do bad things.’

By the time we were acquitted the situation in the community was bad. The women had started getting miscarriages at seven months. The babies would just pass out because of very thick, toxic smoke inhaled all day and all night.

We petitioned the senate committee on health which was very successful. The senate committee came down and we went with human rights watch. The senate committee asked for the smelter to be shut down permanently.

The company still has other smelters operating around the world. One in India, one in Indonesia, and there are two in Indonesia. But none in Kenya.



2007 Starts work at lead smelter

2008–2009 Local lead levels increase tenfold as the factory becomes operational

2012 Arrested at protest against the smelter

2014 Smelter ceases operation

This article was published in the September 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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