On a hot afternoon at a sprawling settlement on the outskirts of Mombasa, Phyllis Omido makes her rounds.
For close to a decade, Omido has been visiting the Owino Uhuru village, monitoring the various illnesses, deaths, and miscarriages that have occurred since a nearby smelter contaminated the village’s air and water with lead.
She passes through the rows of small, mud-walled homes that make up this densely packed village and pokes her head through the doorway of her first visit: Catherine Okello, a small, sickly 35-year-old woman.
On the couch next to Okello, Omido listens to her say in a soft, quiet voice that she’s barely eaten in two weeks.
Adjacent to them are two framed photos: one of Okello’s five-year-old son staring into the camera, and another of his casket. Omido tells Okello to pack a few items of clothing; she needs to go to the doctor, Omido says.
“Somehow, Catherine’s whole family was exposed to very high lead levels,” Omido says of the ailing mother. “I haven’t understood why, because they weren’t the ones living closest to the lead factory.”
Before driving Okello to the hospital, Omido visits two other ailing villagers: Robert Osieko, an elderly man who recently suffered a stroke, and David Mahala, a middle-aged man whose kidneys are failing.
Omido takes Okello to the hospital and stays with her until she’s admitted. She then drives an hour north to a small coastal city, arriving at a walled compound where she’s taken refuge since November. She’s hiding here, she says, while a lawsuit she filed against the Kenyan government and the smelter owners works its way through the court system.
She undoes the three locks on her front door and disarms the security system, setting down her purse, which houses a small black GPS tracker resembling a beeper; she carries it with her wherever she goes.
“There’s been a lot of security challenges,” she would later say. “Any time we go to court, we come under attack.”
Omido, 39, is one of Kenya’s most outspoken environmental activists. She’s been dubbed the “East African Erin Brockovich,” and her work has led to the shuttering of 10 toxic waste smelters in Kenya in the past three years.
She received the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded annually to six people from six different continents who undertake “sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.”
Indeed, much of Omido’s work has been at great risk — to herself, her family, and her colleagues’ families. She’s been physically attacked multiple times and is constantly threatened. She says she’s been arrested on five different occasions, but never convicted. Her colleagues’ lives have also been threatened, their homes broken into or burned.
“It’s quite unfortunate that we have to go through all this,” Omido says with a small shrug.
In 2016, after Omido and a team of lawyers filed a class action lawsuit alleging the government and the lead factory owners of violating Kenyan law and several international treaties, the threats intensified.
The United Nations, through its Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a press release in April demanding the Kenyan government do more to protect Omido and her colleagues, who are “facing a life-or-death situation.”
“These human rights abuses undermine the ability of ordinary Kenyans to seek environmental protection without fear,” the UN statement reads. “It is vital that the Kenyan Government takes effective actions immediately to protect these environmental defenders.”
Police in Mombasa began investigating the alleged threats in April, local media reported. Police chief for Mombasa County, Peter Omwana, told CNN “the matter had been dealt with,” while declining to provide specifics.
Public prosecutors contacted local police three times to ask for any findings, said Mary Wanjiru, a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. They received no response, Wanjiru said.
Thick fumes, bitter water
Omido never dreamed of becoming an activist, but the issue of lead poisoning became personal after her son was born.
She began work at the lead-acid battery recycling plant, Metal Refinery EPZ, as a community relations manager in 2009, the second year of the plant’s operation.
The smelter exported blocks of pure lead by taking used car batteries and extracting the lead from them using a special furnace. In violation of Kenyan environmental and human rights law, the factory’s smelting process would emit fumes, dust, and effluent laden with lead particles, according to a 2015 report by the Ministry of Health.