Thick smoke from the lead smelting plant spread across the village of Owino Uhuru near Mombasa in Kenya. People got sick, women miscarried and chicken died if they drank from the river. Phyllis Omido worked in the foundry. Her son, too, got sick. It was discovered that the cause was lead poisoning. The tip came from an official who had granted the plant its operating license.
“I was furious! The plant got an operating license even though the officials and the government knew that the plant would make its workers and neighbours sick,” Omido says. Over the years, thousands of people have fallen ill, and some have died.
Omido quit her job and began her campaign to close the plant. In 2009 Omido founded the Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA), which has, among other operations, trained Kenyan journalists on environmental and health rights with the support of the Finnish KIOS Foundation. The journalists who took part in the training programme later made a documentary about the smelting plant’s environmental offences. As a result of the uproar following the film’s release, the Kenyan authorities have so far closed down 17 smelting plants across the country. The plant in Mombasa was closed down in 2014.
Over the years Omido, just as many other human rights activists, has been assaulted and arrested and attempts have been made on her life. She is afraid for her family and friends. However, she will not yield: “If I were to give up, the children would pay the price.” Finland supports the work of human rights activists from its development cooperation funds.
Photo: Sven Torfinn / Panos / MVphotos, graphics: Juho Hiilivirta