With encouragement from a local pastor, Omido reached out to community members about what they had seen and experienced: chickens (often kept in backyards) died after drinking the water trickling out from the smelter. Children developed high fevers and complained of stomach aches. Women suffered miscarriages and stillbirths. Omido urged residents to consider lead poisoning as a possibility, often accompanying illiterate parents on hospital visits to help them explain the situation to doctors.
She founded the Center for Justice, Governance, and Environmental Action (CJGEA) and convinced the government health center to test local community members for lead. All three of the first children tested had lead poisoning. In fact, lead levels were so high with one child that the doctors retested the boy. The result was the same: 37 micrograms per deciliter of blood, almost 20 times the median blood lead level among children in the US. Local soil tests showed lead levels increased almost tenfold from 2008 to 2009, when the plant became operational.
Equipped with hard data, Omido went back to the plant’s management and the National Environment Management Authority to shut down the smelter. Her plea fell on deaf ears, and she ramped up pressure with letter-writing campaigns and peaceful street protests. In the face of mounting community pressure and tireless campaigning by Omido and CJGEA, the smelter ceased operations in January 2014.
Omido paid a personal price for this work. During a protest in April 2012, as she began assembling factory workers and residents, police arrested her and charged her with holding an illegal gathering and inciting violence. Her time in jail, along with a brutal attack by two armed men on her way home one night, left her with a deep fear for her safety and that of her son.
Since the plant’s closure, members of Kenya’s senate health committee have toured the former smelter site. Appalled at what they saw, they pledged to provide testing for all community members and clean up the contamination. Omido is now working to hold them to that commitment, building a court case based on Kenya’s constitutional mandate to provide a clean and safe environment for its citizens.