One morning in 2012, Phyllis Omido was pushed into a police van, taken to the local jail, and beaten. Omido, then 34, had organized a peaceful demonstration against her former employer, a lead-acid-battery recycling plant in the town of Owino Uhuru outside Mombasa, Kenya, when she was arrested along with 16 others.
The protests came three years after Omido, a University of Nairobi graduate, started to associate Owino Uhuru’s high lead levels—and its people’s devastating medical conditions—with Metal Refinery EPZ, where she worked as a community-relations manager. Since then, Omido, who quit her job at the factory in 2009, had been fruitlessly trying to convince government officials, including in the capital city of Nairobi, that the refinery’s smelter, which extracted lead from old car batteries, was releasing toxic fumes and lead-filled dust particles into the air.
During her overnight incarceration in 2012, Omido remembers, her son, King David, then three, was at home, on medication for residues of the poisoning he had suffered as an infant.
“I Never Went Back”
For Phyllis Omido, 2012 would be a year straight out of a thriller. Soon after that beating, she re-appealed to the government to shut the plant down, and the threats she’d been receiving for months escalated. “Once, when I was coming home with my son, I found two men at my gate,” Omido, now 42, told me in a recent phone call from Kenya. “I thought they were from the neighboring house, but as I moved closer one of the men showed me a gun. I told them to take whatever they wanted”—all that mattered to Omido was protecting her son. One of the men “hit me and told me I was a loudmouthed woman and they were going to teach me respect,” she says. Reeling with her toddler still in her arms, Omido managed to convince them to let King David inside the house. “One of them hit me again,” she says, but she managed to “open the gate and put my son in.” Then the men hit her a third time. “I fell to the ground facedown,” she says, before one of her neighbors came out and her attackers fled. She immediately called a friend, who drove her and her son to safety. “I never went back to that house,” she says.
And then, after walking me through this harrowing story, Omido laughs.
Whether it was her way of relieving the tension or part of her personality is hard to know. “Phyllis has a great sense of humor,” says Jane Cohen, who worked closely with Omido while in Kenya for Human Rights Watch during that dangerous period in 2012 and for a number of years afterward, and who saw her wit, dedication, and vulnerability up close. But it may also have been a laugh of triumph. For I spoke to Omido shortly after July 16, the day the Land and Environment Court of Mombasa found EPZ and several government agencies guilty of the violations Omido had long accused them of. It is now the Kenyan government’s responsibility to clean up the infected village of Owino Uhuru. Further, the court ruled, the health-impaired community is to be awarded the U.S. equivalent of $12 million within 90 days of that final court date—in other words, less than 40 days from now.
It is an enormous victory, one to which Omido has dedicated 11 years, working through frustration, pain, and considerable danger. Still, the thrill of victory has been necessarily short-lived. Now, Omido, her lawyers, and her staff at the Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action (C.J.G.E.A.), a nonprofit organization Omido founded in 2009, face the task of “disseminating the ruling to the community—breaking it down into simple language,” she says, and defending it from legal appeals, which have already been brought forward by the attorney general.
Nothing in this long battle has come easily. But this is the furthest they’ve ever gotten, and Omido says, “I am confident that we are going to win.”
During Omido’s overnight incarceration, her toddler was at home, on medication for residues of lead poisoning.
Throughout her years as an activist, she has been widely called the “East African Erin Brockovich.” Similarly to Omido, Brockovich, the Kansas-raised former Kmart manager and beauty queen, sleuthed out the contaminated drinking water in the town of Hinkley, California, in the early 90s and helped win the 1996 case Anderson v. Pacific Gas & Electric; at $333 million, the settlement was, at the time, the biggest of its kind in U.S. history.
Like Omido, who has witnessed townspeople suffer from strokes, miscarriages, failed kidneys, abdominal pain, and other lead-related ailments, Brockovich documented high incidences of cancer in Hinkley. But Brockovich did not endure the beatings and danger Omido did. (Disclosure: I interviewed Brockovich for an article I wrote in 2003 investigating another case she was working on, this time regarding my alma mater, Beverly Hills High School. She claimed that the seemingly inordinate number of cases of ex-students’ and teachers’ cancers had been caused by the high school’s 17 on-premises and adjacent oil wells; as so often happens, the 1,065 cancer patients’ potential lawsuits were ultimately dismissed.)
And, following in Brockovich’s big-screen footsteps—Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich became a beloved hit movie, with Julia Roberts’s portrayal of the cleavage-parading activist winning her an Oscar for best actress—Omido has begun to get offers from producers.
Whom would she want to play her? “Lupita!” she immediately cries out, of Nyong’o, the 2013 best supporting actress for 12 Years a Slave.
In 2009, three years before that peaceful protest landed Phyllis Omido in jail, there was no laughter and no talk of Hollywood. Busy commuting from a nearby village to her new job at the refinery, Omido would sometimes take her newborn to work with her, breastfeeding him at her desk.
Three months after Omida started her job, King David began getting “spiking fevers, vomiting, and diarrhea. He couldn’t keep anything down,” she recalls. It was when he was hospitalized a month later that, on a friend’s suggestion, Omido had her son tested for lead poisoning. The test came back with an alarming 35 micrograms per deciliter—seven times higher than the C.D.C.’s safety threshold of 5 micrograms. (The World Health Organization has determined that there is no safe level for lead in the body.) The baby, it turns out, had been ingesting lead through Omido’s breast milk; Omido, in turn, had absorbed the toxins through the air at work. She wrote to her boss, who agreed to cover King David’s medical bills on the condition that she would stay mum about her findings. Omido accepted the money and promptly quit her job at EPZ.
Not long after that, one of the workers at the plant fell ill. “He was taken to the hospital, but he didn’t make it.” This tragic death, so soon after her own son’s hospitalization, marked a turning point for Omido. “I went into the community and I took three children for testing, and all three tested positive for lead poisoning. And then I took another 10 people, and they also tested positive,” she says. “I brought the results to the government offices, and we started a kind of [grassroots] movement.” Omido quickly learned that the water the villagers used for drinking and bathing had been contaminated by the smelter. “I spoke to community members and advised them on how to present the case in front of a government agency,” Omido says, but to no avail—the agency, she recalled, accused her of lying: “They said I was making it all up” and inciting the villagers. “They didn’t take action. So we started organizing demonstrations.”
LEAD KILLS! was printed on the signs Omido and the others first held up in front of the factory in 2010. When Ramadhan Kajembe, Kenya’s assistant minister for the environment, appeared, insisting that the factory created jobs for the villagers, Omido retorted to Kajembe that she would show him written proof of her son’s poisoning. The minister took this unkindly enough that Omido jumped onto her motorbike and, as she put it, “escaped.” (Kajembe has maintained that he does not recall this incident.)
Still, something came of Omido’s first stint as an activist, if momentarily—the environmental authorities ordered the factory temporarily closed. It was ordered reopened soon afterward.
For three years Omido protested to no end. But people far outside Owino Uhuru were starting to notice. In the summer of 2012, Jane Cohen, who was already working for Human Rights Watch (H.R.W.) in Zimbabwe, heard about Omido’s crusade and went to Mombasa to meet her. H.R.W. would soon throw its weight behind the cause, releasing a video that gained international attention. “I remember distinctly her walking into the café we’d planned to meet in, hauling a briefcase with a million binders, exhausted but full of passion,” Cohen says. “We hit it off right away. She really wanted to tell her story, for people to pay attention. She had a lot of security concerns”—the attack on Omido outside her home had happened recently—“but she kept going.”
Omido’s opponents didn’t just come in the form of company executives and local authorities—some of the townspeople themselves were suspicious of her. “She was an outsider to the community since she didn’t live in the village, and she wasn’t doing physical labor at the smelter—she had more of an administrative role,” says Cohen.
After meeting Omido, Cohen traveled back to EPZ headquarters on her own and “poked around. In my many years of being in dangerous situations in many countries, it was one of the scarier experiences I had,” she says. “They definitely did not want people to be asking questions.” Cohen says that Omido had already made stunning discoveries by that point, including that the environmental-impact assessment needed for state operational permits had been doctored. “When I eventually met with the man who had done the official assessment,” says Cohen, “he went through it and showed me where it had been changed so that it would pass muster.”
Under these circumstances, “It would have been a lot easier for Phyllis to give up, but she didn’t. She was very determined. Once, we went looking for a grave. It was far away, but when she got it in her mind that she wanted to do something, she did it.” On their way to the grave, Omido “talked to this man whose brother had died after he worked in the factory and to other people who were really traumatized. Phyllis has a charisma about her,” says Cohen. “She is just very present when she talks.”
Visiting the EPZ factory “was one of the scarier experiences I had. They definitely did not want people to be asking questions.”
“The saddest thing for me,” Omido says, “was a small child who had high levels of lead. I tried to save him. I tried to get a medic to monitor his progress. I instructed my office to supply him with nutritious food. We couldn’t touch his skin because of his exposure to lead and acid.” The hospitalized boy, four, wanted to see his mother, but he died before Omido could arrange it. Did she cry? “Yes, of course I cried!”
“I saw Phyllis cry many times,” Cohen says. “I remember one very difficult encounter—her trying to get a woman who had a miscarriage to open up and talk.” For years Omido shouldered fear both “for her son and herself,” Cohen says. “On the one hand, her work was known to people; on the other, she had to stay under the radar because there was a whole faction in the village who were against her,” people possibly “bought off by the plant.”
Finally, gains were made. In 2014, following four years of protest from Omido, Kenya banned the exporting of scrap metal and the EPZ factory was permanently closed. In the fall of that year, Omido made her first trip to the U.S., staying in the Brooklyn apartment Cohen shares with her husband before traveling with Cohen to New Haven to attend an environmental conference at Yale. Omido was so excited to go to Macy’s that she took “this humongous suitcase to Herald Square,” Cohen says. “I’m pregnant and feeling I’m about to burst, and waiting with her suitcase outside Macy’s while she shops.” Omido (“who was notoriously bad with time,” Cohen says affectionately) came out later than expected, excitedly bearing the gifts she’d bought for friends back home. Then—huge Macy’s bags and huger suitcase banging between them—the two sprinted like hell to Penn Station, catching their train to New Haven just in time. “Phyllis does things her own way,” Cohen says with a laugh to match her friend’s.
In 2015 came another victory for Omido: a government task force found that EPZ, “by releasing toxic fumes containing lead particulates and oxides of sulphur, trade effluent, and solid waste into the neighboring Owino Uhuru village … primarily caused the myriad of problems threatening public health and safety of Owino Uhuru.”
Whom would she want to play her? “Lupita!”
Shortly before that victory—in November of 2014—Omido’s office phone rang, and she was told that she’d just won the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s foremost award given to grassroots environmental activists.
“I didn’t believe it!,” Omido says. “I thought the call was a hoax.”
Finally, a call that wasn’t cruel or menacing. “In spite of death threats, arrests, and physical attacks, Phyllis persevered to shut down the toxic smelter and win restitution for her community,” says Ilan Kayatsky, communications director of the organization, which was set up by philanthropists Richard N. and Rhoda H. Goldman in 1989. “Each year, we receive around 100 nominations from around the world,” Kayatsky says. “Her victory is an inspiration to activists.” While the amount given to the winners is confidential, in 2019 it was said to have been around $200,000; Omido put her prize money back into her organization.
At the Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony in San Francisco on April 20, 2015, Omido appeared onstage in a stunning red, white, and green Kenyan evening gown, glowing as she spoke of how humbled she was and emphasized the need to fight adversity with “togetherness.” Just before taking her gold trophy, Omido looked toward the audience a final time and said, “I feel the winds changing.”
Sheila Weller is a journalist and the author of eight books, including, most recently, Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge