Kenyan mother fights to save her community from lead poisoning

Photo: The Goldman Environmental Prize

Phyllis Omido holding the Goldman Environmental Prize.

As environmental activist Phyllis Omido ascended the stage at the San Francisco Opera House to accept a prize for her efforts to close down a dangerous lead smelter, the crowd could not help but notice the colors of her dress – colors reminiscent of the Kenyan flag.

Omido’s dress, made in her home town of Mombasa, was a proud reminder to those watching the ceremony back in Kenya of what the country’s flag stood for: the red for blood, the green for the country’s natural wealth and the white for freedom, along with a Maasai shield representing the defense of that freedom.

She would elaborate to the audience on the dress a little more. “What those colors represent,” she explained, “were also the principles that have fueled my environmental and human rights advocacy… for the last eight years.”

Omido was one of six recipients this year of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded by a San Francisco-based organisation to those whom it calls “grassroots environmental heroes” around the world.

Her journey started back in 2007, when she was a young mother working in the community relations department of a lead smelter plant in the Owino Uhuru district of Mombasa when her infant son fell ill.

After a barrage of tests for everything from malaria to typhoid turned up negative, a plant manager suggested Omido have her son, named King David, tested for lead poisoning. The tests revealed that he had acute levels of lead in his system. (According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control there is no safe level of lead for children.)

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