The mother who defied threats to take on the factory spewing out toxin

Families in a Kenyan slum were slowly succumbing to lead poisoning from a smelting plant until Phyllis Omido campaigned for its closure

Nairobi

When Phyllis Omido landed a new job in 2007, she couldn’t have been happier. Although she’d be working in a smelter in the poor slum neighbourhood of Owino Uhuru in Mombasa, it was a coveted office job, and came with perks like a company car and free petrol. 

But after a few months Ms Omido’s young son King David, until then an easy baby, fell ill. He had fevers and cried constantly. Hospital visits and many tests followed, but doctors were baffled, and eventually baby King was admitted.

Ms Omido was terrified and desperate. Among the friends who visited the pair in hospital was a senior official in Mombasa’s export processing zone, tasked with attracting foreign investment like the smelter. “He told me, ‘Have you thought that maybe it could be lead poisoning?’” says Ms Omido.

She had been breastfeeding King while working at the factory. Blood tests showed he had lead levels of 17 microgrammes per decileter. There is no safe level of lead for children, and any level higher than five requires action. “I was so angry,” Ms Omido says. “I cried for days, because it was me that had made him sick. Immediately I knew I was never, ever going back there.”

With help from relatives and doctors, Ms Omido arranged treatment for King, to minimise the risk that he might suffer neurological, biological and cognitive damage. Faced with a £1,500 bill, Ms Omido went to the refinery owners and asked them to pay; in return she signed a stack of documents, including a promise to keep silent.

But after paying her bills, Ms Omido felt she couldn’t keep such a dark secret. Managers at the factory routinely turned up for on-site meetings in full protective gear, but offered workers only flimsy cotton gloves that fell apart within days. “I decided to do my duty and tell people working there what my son had been through – and that they should be careful.”

One of Nairobi's slums Kibera slum One of Nairobi's slums Kibera slum (Getty Images)
People were concerned, but not unduly so – some thought Ms Omido had been fired and was just making trouble – until Karissa Charo, a smelter worker who fell ill from lead poisoning, died. “People got scared and started calling me,” Ms Omido says. Although lead poisoning can cause damage to the body’s organs, it’s rare for adults to die from it. Yet at least three people who worked at this one factory are dead. And some 3,000 people still live in the factory’s shadow.

When Ms Omido and other locals gathered enough money to perform blood tests on 15 residents, including children, 14 of them had high lead levels. The only person who didn’t was a child who’d just moved to the area. The water supply used by the community to drink, cook and bathe in is feared contaminated. But residents cannot afford to pay for mains water.

Once Ms Omido started investigating, she began to receive threats. As she returned home one evening, two armed men tried to kidnap her in front of her young son. “My son started screaming,” Ms Omido says. “I remember being hit at some point. I was thinking, ‘Why can’t he keep quiet?’ Because I thought they might shoot him.”

A woman washes dishes in the slum of Mathare, one of the poorest slums in Nairobi A woman washes dishes in the slum of Mathare, one of the poorest slums in Nairobi (Getty Images)
She was saved when a passing car scared off the attackers; she and King never spent another night in that home and have since moved away. Soon after, the refinery stopped operating, but only temporarily. “We thought yeah, it’s not going to open! But after a few weeks, there it was again, spewing smoke.” For months, years, Ms Omido and her fellow campaigners sought answers from the Kenyan authorities, writing letters, holding demonstrations and demanding meetings. But they got nowhere.

So she founded her own group, the Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action, and sought international help to mount a class-action case in the Kenyan courts. Human Rights Watch has been working with Ms Omido since 2011, trying to raise her case in Nairobi and Geneva. But it’s Ms Omido who lives the daily battle, scraping together funds and pressing for justice for the community.

A few weeks ago the thick, black smoke the smelter belches out into the air stopped and, for now, operations at the factory appear to have ceased. But activists can’t get any information about the smelter from local authorities and fear it could restart at any time, or relocate and pollute a new community. The factory building remains a testament to how poisonous the wrong type of investment can be. Ms Omido still visits Owino Uhuru regularly, but she has a strict protocol to protect her son King, now a healthy eight-year-old, when she gets home. “Mum goes sometimes to a place that is poisonous, so he knows I have to bathe first and change my clothes,” says Ms Omido. “Only then can he hug me.”

Officials have failed to investigate how, in the 21st century, a factory could poison not just its workers but an entire community.

Like Ms Omido, most environmental activists aren’t professional campaigners but ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, either unable or unwilling to turn a blind eye.

Environmental activism is an increasingly dangerous trade: according to the advocacy group Global Witness, two activists are killed every week for their work.

Emma Daly is communications director at Human Rights Watch and a former correspondent at The Independent

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Arts and Entertainment
Sister Cristina Scuccia sings 'Like a Virgin' in Venice
music

Like Madonna, Sister Cristina Scuccia's video is also set in Venice

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

News
i100
Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Teacher

£100 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: IT teacher required immediately...

IT Security Advisor – Permanent – Surrey - £60k-£70k

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

IT Assistant - Windows XP/7/8, Networks Firewalls/VPN's

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Assistant - Windows XP/7/8, Netwo...

KS2 Teacher

£100 - £140 per day + Flexible with benefits: Randstad Education Group: Key St...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album