I Feel The Winds Changing: An Interview with Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Phyllis Omido

Kenyan Phyllis Omido never meant to become an activist, but after successfully shutting down a lead smelter responsible for rampant illness and several deaths in her community, she became a symbolic figure in the fight for environmental justice in the rapidly-industrializing global south. 

By Lindsey Kennedy
July 2015

Phyllis Omido

Meet Phyllis Omido, one of the six people in the world chosen for the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. Every year, Utne Reader profiles one of these winners, and we were lucky enough to speak with Ms. Omido about her rise to symbolic figurehood and what it’s like to be an unlikely activist defending her community from polluters. We have annotated our interview to give you the whole story, with our many thanks going out to both Phyllis and the Goldman Prize organization for this opportunity.

When Phyllis Omido’s infant son became suddenly severely ill, doctors in her home of Mombassa, Kenya, struggled to find a cause.  At the time, Phyllis worked in the office of a lead smelter in the impoverished settlement of Owino Uhuru, and although she was not working directly with lead, she had been exposed to dangerous levels of the heavy metal, unknowingly passing poison to her breastfeeding son. It wasn’t until a friend who worked closely with government-industry relations suggested lead poisoning that her son’s illness, and that of many other children in the community, began to make sense.

Phyllis Omido: It was a panic because it’s not something that is normal in our African context. If you’re told your child has lead poisoning you don’t know what to do. If he has malaria or typhoid or something like that, you usually know this is the procedure to follow. But this was something so strange and so new.

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