As we mark World Earth Day this week, a woman by the name Phyllis Omido just became my idol. I loved everything to do with the environment and she just rekindled that passion. For those who do not know who she is, she is the winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa.
It is an impressive award because she was among the only six recipients of the world’s largest award for grassroots environmental activists. With the trophy she got a whopping sum of Sh15.7 million ($175,000). Phyllis was fed up with the lead-smelting factory that was around her area. The plant had caused her only child to fall sick and this was the last straw for the “mama bear”. Let us get to understand this woman and what got her to where she is now.
She is a human rights defender with a background in Business Administration from the University Of Nairobi and a work experience of over 15 years in the Industries in Kenya. She has in the past four years been in charge of Environmental Activism and human rights wing.
To try and fight the factory she raised protests against the factory she worked in. This was after her child fell ill due to lead poisoning. The doctor told her the child could have got it from her breast milk. The plant used to take car batteries and extract lead from them, a process that emitted lead laden fumes. On top of that, they disposed of the acid water found in batteries in the stream that people used. This was just plain inconsiderate. The company was started in 2009 without an Environmental Impact Assessment. This goes to show how our Government needs to work on matters like these.
She quit her job and advocated for it to be closed and opened somewhere safer. How? Well, after trying the peaceful dialogue with her superiors, she was relocated and they brought another consultant to finish the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that was her first task. The company then resorted to sacking employees routinely because of the exposure to lead. After one of the workers died, the community rose up in uproar. She even faced opposition from an MP whom she thought would assist them. Still they stuck to their guns and demonstrated till the UN joined in and assisted. Finally the company was closed.
This was not the end for this phenomenal woman. She had gone through the risk of imprisonment for a duration of ten years but that had not deterred her. The judge had thrown out the case and maybe that motivated her. To know the law was actually a double-edge sword better said in Swahili “Sheria ni msumeno, hukata mbele na nyuma” meaning the law works, it doesn’t just favour the rich. She set up a local NGO, the Center for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action, to fight other causes, like salt miners who are damaging Kenya’s nearby coastal fisheries. And she has work to do in Owino Uhuru. She is following up on the soil contamination and air that could have long term effects even to the coming generation and that is why she is demanding compensation for the slum dwellers.
Her son got better and she was able to help several others not experience the pain of loss. It is not easy for a loved one let alone a mother to watch her child die from something preventable. She has given us a challenge. I have been inspired by this exceptional woman, I hope you have too.