Decade-long fight weighs on Kenyan activist

Phyllis Omido continues to fight for change after an appeal brought a decade-long battle back to the surface.

  • 3 years ago
  • December 11, 2020
4 min read
Phyllis Omido stands with her arms in the air while surrounded by Kenyan protesters. Environmental activist Phyllis Omido pictured during one of her organized protests.
First-person source

Phyllis Omido is an Environmental Activist based in Mombasa Kenya. She was catapulted onto the local and international limelight for organizing protests against a lead smelting factory plant located in the middle of Owino Uhuru slum, which she believes is slowly poisoning the residents and employees, leaving them with serious health issues.

MOMBASA, Kenya — It was a decade of struggle.

People in my community had lost their lives. The stress alone weighed so heavy on my heart that, at one point during the fight, my weight dropped to 40 kgs.

Our case against the Kenyan government for allowing a battery-smelting factory to operate illegally consumed me. They continued despite an environmental impact report that warned of the dangerous aftermath.

But, after ten years of fighting, we had won. The courts directed the government to compensate everyone affected by the poisonous lead fumes and discharge emitted by the factory to the tune of $12 million. It was time to rest. It was finally over.

Then the state machinery appealed the Supreme Court ruling. This never-ending saga of justice sabotage continues.

If I am to describe the emotion I am feeling now, it would be anger.

I have lived my worst nightmares in the past ten years of pursuing this case. Once the court case began, so did the threats, intimidations, and harassment towards my life from the political class and the police.

I have been accosted and beat up by hooligans at my residence and threatened to drop the case. I have been picked from my place of residence by men calling themselves the police, locked up on trumped-up charges only for the court to throw out the cases for lack of evidence.

And I have feared for my life.

But my biggest fear is that those impacted by this disaster will die without seeing the justice they deserve. The year 2012-2014 was the worst, as every week we were burying someone. It started with adults dying at an alarming rate, and then the children. Taking care of the widows, widowers, and orphans that are left behind weighs heavy on my shoulders.

I see and even dream of the people who died. They come to me in my dreams and ask me to soldier on, and others ask that I take care of their families. That is the nature of my work that I cannot escape. They had become like family to me through our daily interactions. We started this journey to justice together, but some were too sick to continue with me to the end.

When I feel overwhelmed, I talk to friends and seek professional help. I realize that as an activist, the word strong defines you a lot and people rarely ask about your mental well-being. I have to take charge and ask for help when I feel like I am drowning.

Triggers that keep me going

A decade of following up on the same case makes one come up with a variety of reasons to continue with the push for justice at every stage. At first, it was for my son. Now it’s for the residents of the Owino Uhuru slum.

The Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action registered in 2012 as an outfit to legalize our voices. Along the way, I have received a lot of support from individuals, human rights agencies, and the international community. Several times these organizations have intervened in my court cases both financially, legally, and by raising the alarm, if need be.

Since I started on this journey, I have every documentation detailing the atrocities that the people of the Owino Uhuru slum have gone through as a result of the choices that mandated agencies and the government made in disregard to human dignity.

I will only let go when they get justice.

The Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action [CJGEA] takes a “human rights-based approach to environmental protection in communities affected by toxic chemicals and extractive industries in Kenya, drawing synergies of awareness on climate change, mitigation and carbon emissions.”

According to CJGEA, 2015 was a monumental year for the organization as their efforts brought a government team to Owino Uhuru.

“The ministry of health also came on board after our aggressive advocacy work by sending to Owino Uhuru a team of medical practitioners from CDC who conducted a prevalence study of children’s blood lead levels and environmental lead samples, to assist the state to concretely quantify the contribution of the lead smelter to children’s blood lead level. The report revealed that a significant percentage of the population proximate to the smelter had alarming blood lead levels above the PEL of WHO at 5µg/dl,” the organization states.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, environmental activists in Kenya’s Lamu region during 2018 faced abuse from the government and police. Protesters in Lamu were combating the construction of a power plant that was set to move forwards despite known environmental and health concerns.

“Kenyan authorities have an obligation to respect the role of activists and to uphold the right to health and a healthy environment, freedom of expression, association and assembly as outlined in various international treaties and conventions, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and Kenya’s constitution,” the HRW wrote with regards to the Lamu protests.

“There is also an emerging set of international norms protecting human rights defenders, including environmental activists, that Kenya can and should promote by ensuring accountability for unlawful repression.”

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