They say change begins at home. That’s definitely true for Lale Labuko, who was recently named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his humanitarian work in Ethiopia. Labuko, 30, is on a mission to end mingi, the ritualistic killing of “cursed children” practiced by tribes in the remote Omo Valley region of Southeast Africa. And he started with his own people, the Kara.
In 2008, when Labuko told his father he wanted to save the children who’d been condemned to die, the response was that of concern. “He told me it was really risky and dangerous to my life,” says Labuko, who was undeterred. “Eventually I convinced him.”
Labuko also confided in Rancho Santa Fe-based photographer John Rowe, who had visited the desolate Omo Valley many times to shoot. An English speaker, Labuko served as Rowe’s guide and the two became trusted friends. “I knew a lot about these people and their culture,” says Rowe. “But this was always kept very, very secret.”
Children are deemed mingi (pronounced with a hard “g”) for reasons ranging from out-of-wedlock birth to the first tooth showing up in the wrong place. The tribes believe that if mingi are allowed to live, the whole village will be plagued by bad luck and misery. The children, often infants, are abandoned in the woods to starve or be eaten by wild animals. Labuko first found out about mingi when he was 15 and saw a little girl ripped from her mother’s arms. He learned that two of his sisters had been killed, as well.
Labuko told an astonished Rowe that he needed help taking care of the children he’d rescued so far. “I couldn’t say no,” says Rowe. “It’s a struggle to provide for them, but the alternative is so much worse.”
Together, the two launched Omo Child, which provides a home and education for 37 mingi children. At the organization’s two shelters in Jinka, run on a tight budget of donations, nannies called “mamas” give their charges plenty of TLC.
Labuko hopes that with a good education, these kids have a shot at a productive future. He credits his own education for his devotion to his people. His father had sent him to boarding school, where he was one of the first Karas to learn to read and speak English and Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.
After Labuko returned home and won his father’s support, he turned to the tribe’s youth. “I told them, ‘This is our time. Our fathers killed their children. We will save our own. We have a really beautiful culture and rich traditions but this part [mingi] is not acceptable!'”
Labuko adds, “And then I told them to go tell their families.”
In July of 2012 the Kara held a ceremony to mark the groundbreaking end of mingi among its people. Labuko believes the neighboring tribes will soon follow suit.
And to make sure mingi remains a relic of the past, Labuko is now lobbying villagers to let their children attend school. “Education can open your eyes and help your own children in the future.” (www.omochild.org) ANNAMARIA STEPHENS
Photographed: John Rowe and Lale Labuko