After learning her own breast milk was making her baby sick—and realizing her child wasn’t the only one suffering from lead poisoning— 2015 Goldman Prize winner Phyllis Omido galvanized the community in Mombasa to shut down the smelter that was exposing people to dangerous chemicals. In this Q&A we discuss how she came to be one of Kenya’s most prominent environmental activists.
In carrying out the EIA report for the smelter, at what point did you realize that you were coming across troubling findings? What happened when you presented your findings?
“[The EIA expert] told me, ‘if this industry operates where it is, at the current location, you’re going to have people dying and you’re going to have a lot of poisoning.’
What I was supposed to tell the community was that it would bring jobs and employment and it was going to be good for the community, might help with giving the communities water and stuff like that but after I spoke to the expert, I could not go ahead and do that. I couldn’t tell the communities this was going to bring jobs after what the expert had given me in writing about the negative impact.”
“About three months into my job, my son started having a fever. My son is someone who sleeps well the whole night. He had not given me any problems up to that point. The first thing we noticed was the fever at night and even during the day he was not eating and would be crying all the time. We thought it was malaria, so we tested him for malaria and typhoid and all the normal diseases that you can think of when a child is sick in Kenya, but all the tests that we were doing were coming out negative.
After speaking with the people in the village, Phyllis started realizing that the babies and young children were the first group to start being impacted by the negative effects of the smelter. She told the community pastor, a close friend, what happened with her son, and in turn, the pastor let her know that other strange things had been happening in the village.
“She was the one that started telling me things… [For instance] in Kenya people keep chickens in their houses for food and for eggs, and when the chickens would drink the water that was coming from the smelter, they would die. And then she said that all the kids would be sick at the same time and babies were having fevers. I told her ‘I don’t know how we’re going to handle this, but I believe the children are getting sick because of the smelter that was put up here.’”
“We went to all the hospitals with them and explained to the doctors. Unfortunately, no hospital was doing lead blood level tests. They all said ‘this is something we don’t do.’ So we took three children from the community and took them to the government chemist who was able to do the tests. That was in 2009, and all the government tests said that these children had been exposed to lead poisoning. All three that we took turned out positive for lead poisoning. So that was the first piece of evidence that we had that showed that there was lead poisoning in the community.”
Was there ever a moment that you felt like giving up?
“I always felt like giving up. I was very positive until the day I was confronted by gunmen in 2011. After that I knew for sure that I had to give up. I moved from Mombasa, a two hour drive away, and said, ‘I’m done with this, I’m not going to do this anymore.’ I changed my phone number, and said this is not worth anything. The government is not helping and my friends have left me…
But then, the pastor from the community called me and said, ‘You can’t abandon these people. The people were getting worse.’ The whole situation was getting worse for the people from the community. The acid from the chimney was landing on the community. The situation was very bad and they were all looking at me for help.”
“We need to bring NEMA public health to accountability as to what happened and why it happened. Then we need the government to take responsibility, clean up the community and treat and compensate the community. So our main priority is to get this case to court very fast, not for just this community but for all of the communities going through the same issue.”