In Kenya, Phyllis Omido is guilty of inciting justice

Last week, Phyllis Omido, a community organizer in Mombasa, Kenya, received the Africa 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her work inciting justice. Phyllis Omido has been combating toxicity in all its forms: chemical, environmental, cultural, political, economic. She has struggled and organized to transform sites of toxic elements into spaces of collective health and well-being.

In 2009, an iron-smelting factory opened in the densely populated Owino Uhuru slum of Mombasa. Solar energy is big in Kenya, and growing quickly. To meet the increased demand for lead coming from the solar industry, smelting factories have popped up, recycling car batteries in smelters. It’s big business.

The smelting factory in Mombasa hired Phyllis Omido as a community liaison officer. Her job included conducting an environmental impact study. Somehow, despite all sorts of regulations, they had opened without any such study. Meanwhile, Omido’s two-and-a-half year old child began suffering a series of ailments: nausea, sleeplessness, high fever, and more. Tests finally showed that Omido’s son, King David, was suffering from lead poisoning, which he’d contracted from his mother’s breast milk.

Omido took her environmental impact study to her bosses, who immediately shut it down. She took it to the State, who immediately accused her of being a member of the opposition. They argued that she was clearly out to destroy the economy and crush the hopes of poor working people and communities. Omido had a long history of conducting professional environmental impact studies for other factories, and yet her hard data made less than no difference.

At first, Phyllis Omido campaigned for the factory to pay for her son’s medical care, which they did, once she agreed to sign non-disclosure agreements. But Phyllis Omido looked around and knew she couldn’t keep quiet. Too many lives were at stake.

And so Phyllis Omido organized. She organized a campaign to shut down the factory. After five years, that happened last year … sort of. When Phyllis Omido protested peacefully, she was charged with inciting violence. She was acquitted. When Phyllis Omido was physically and otherwise attacked, her response was to turn swords into ploughshares. She intensified and broadened the campaign. She founded The Center for Justice Governance & Environmental Action. She started taking on salt miners who are damaging Kenya’s coastal fisheries. She is testing the soil and air in a variety of nearby slum neighborhoods, and demanding action. She is suing the Kenyan government and its environmental agency, demanding that they pay compensation, clean up the local environment, and abide by the Constitutional mandate to provide a clean and safe environment for all.

Phyllis Omido has fused anecdotal, experiential evidence with hard, scientific data and created a powerful tool for the people, and especially the women, of the slums of Mombasa and beyond. She pursued what she could see. For example, on entering the plant, foreign managers donned protective gear and masks, but “the workers just worked. Sometimes they’d take a piece of rag and tie it around their noses but they didn’t have any protective gear. At that point when I was still there, they didn’t know that this [air] was poisonous. They were just protecting themselves from the smoke, the acid, the stench.” She pursued what she could not see: the paths of toxic elements, the lead contaminating the air, water, soil; the greed contaminating the State.

In January 2015, the State finally started testing the children of the slums of Mombasa. Thanks to Phyllis Omido and countless women slum dwellers like her, the quest for justice continues.


(Photo Credit: The Goldman Environmental Prize)


What happened to Natasha McKenna? The routine torture of cell extraction

In early February, Natasha McKenna was killed by six officers in the Fairfax County Jail, in northern Virginia near Washington, DC. McKenna was 37 years old. She was the mother of a 7-year-old daughter. She was living with schizophrenia. She was a diminutive woman, 5 feet 3 inches, 130 pounds. And she was Black. She […]



As families of the 7 dead are still reeling in disbelief, preparing to bury their loved ones. As the more than 8000 displaced do what they can, mastering stamina to survive by the minute. Thousands of us are preparing to march tomorrow. We are painting placards and banners. Printing t-shirts. We will come armed with […]


For Nigeria and the World, an Anniversary and Much, Much More

A year ago 276 high school girl students were kidnapped from Chibok boarding secondary school located in the state of Borno in the north east of Nigeria. One year later, clearly the national response and global response has been ineffective and disappointing since 219 girls are still missing. The response from the former President Goodluck […]


Watching the images of violence happening near my home in Johannesburg city centre, I think about my uncle

Watching the images of violence happening near my home in Johannesburg city centre, I think about my uncle. A mine worker who brought us endless stories of this and that workmate from Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, Zimbabwe…somewhere in our region. We knew the names of these places from him before we learnt them at school. His […]


The World Bank is (still) bad for women, children, men, and all living creatures

The World Bank is still bad for women, children, men, and all living creatures. While not surprising news, it is the result of a mammoth research project carried on by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and their partners. Journalists pored through more than 6000 World Bank documents and interviewed past and current World Bank […]


When Ethiopia `villagizes’, women suffer

The Oakland Institute released a major report today, We Say the Land is Not Yours: Breaking the Silence against Forced Displacement in Ethiopia. The report is comprised of oral testimony of individuals who have been violently displaced by the Ethiopian government’s ongoing villagization program. The Ethiopian government says it hopes to `resettle’ as many as […]


In Paris, a victory for migrant workers and for labor rights!

In Paris, this week 18 women and men, 14 of them undocumented immigrants, won an eight months battle for labor rights and human dignity. They are known as the workers of the “57” named after the address of the Afro Salon “New York fashion” 57 boulevard Sebastopol in the heart of Paris. They escaped their […]


They have no names: Europe’s unmournable women

There is the work of mourning, and then there is the labor of the unmournable. Two weeks ago, the Institute of Race Relations published Unwanted, Unnoticed: an audit of 160 asylum and immigration-related deaths in Europe. Of 160 deaths from January 2010 to December 2014, 123 resulted from the immigration and asylum system. While the […]


Garissa: There must be more than grief

Garissa. There must be more than reports of smoke and explosions and flying bullets and destruction and carnage. There must be more than `eye witness accounts’ and there must be more than smart analyses of why Kenya, why now. There must be other than agony and tales of hiding and emergence, of atrocity. There must […]


The Parable of Karnes Immigration Detention Center

In the spirit of Holy Week, the mothers of Karnes Immigration Detention Center, in south Texas, are on work and hunger strike. With their bodies, they are asserting their humanity, sisterhood, dignity, and, as so often, with their bodies they are protecting their children. This is the highway to hell we have constructed over the […]

Older posts