After witnessing the ritualistic killing of infants and children in his own tribe, 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer and humanitarian Lale Labuko co-founded Omo Child to provide safety, care, and education for the children he rescues.
Lale Labuko co-founded Omo Child to stop the ritualistic killing of infants and children in the Omo River Valley of Ethiopia and provide safe shelter, care, and education for the children he rescues. He divides his time between Ethiopia and the United States, where he is a student at Hampshire College.
Lale Labuko witnessed the unspeakable and spoke out. At age 15, he saw elders from his tribe in southwestern Ethiopia tear a two-year-old girl from her mother's arms and run away with her. The child was never seen again. On that day, he heard the word mingi for the first time-a term to describe a cursed baby or child. Ancient belief says children who are deemed mingi will bring drought, famine, and disease to the tribe if they are allowed to live. Ritualistic killing is traditionally seen as the only solution. "I was crying and so shocked. I wanted to save that little girl." The killings are kept secret from anyone younger than 15. In fact, Labuko later learned he had two older sisters, both mingi, who were killed before he ever knew them.
Tribal elders kill mingi babies and young children by drowning them in rivers, pushing them off cliffs, or leaving them in the bush to starve or be eaten by wild animals. Labuko vowed to end the practice. A few years later, pleading with tribal elders to let him take doomed children to safety, he said "Let me be your river, your cliff, your bush."
Labuko's village sits in one of Africa's most remote regions, Ethiopia's Omo Valley. Traditions held by the 17 tribes who live there have remained unchanged for centuries. Tribes believing in mingi can deem a child bad luck for three main reasons. Children who get their top teeth before their bottom teeth, babies born out of wedlock, and babies born to married couples whose pregnancy was not first blessed by tribal elders can all be declared mingi. If families don't cooperate, they themselves will be cursed and banished.
Labuko was able to see the bigger picture because he had seen the bigger world. His father, a respected village elder, made the unheard-of decision to send him away to school. When told, Labuko asked, "What's school?" His culture has no words for school, pen, or paper; no written language exists. Each trip to boarding school required him to walk 65 desert miles barefoot, constantly on guard for lions, hyenas, and enemy tribes.
The perspective gained from education fueled his resolve to save mingi children and abolish the practice. He returned to his village and started a school. "I knew if the youth of my Kara tribe were educated, they would help my efforts." So began a long, slow, delicate process of changing ingrained attitudes and fears within his family, community, and ruling elders. "I told them I respected our culture, but that my generation did not want the blight of mingi to spoil the wonderful parts of our heritage. I said rather than kill these children, let me take them away and the curse will leave with them." After finally gaining permission to remove some of the children, he and his wife cared for them in their own home at a nearby town.
Ultimately he was able to work with Ethiopia's government and raise funds from international donors to begin Omo Child, a nonprofit humanitarian organization and home. Today, 37 mingi babies and children rescued by Labuko now live in the home, many saved only moments before certain death. "They are being educated and live in a clean, safe place with medical care and enough to eat," says Labuko. "The nannies love and care for them as if they were their own children. I'm especially proud that three of them are the first girls from my tribe to ever attend school. No child in our tribal villages has all this."
As a result of his impassioned advocacy efforts with the tribal elders, Labuko's greatest accomplishment came in July 2012 when his own tribe, the Kara, officially banned mingi. "We completely changed the culture and attitudes." Yet for him, the victory won't be complete until mingi is abolished from all tribes. "Some 50,000 people secretly continue to practice mingi," Labuko says. "They know it is controversial, so they hide it." He has initiated meetings with a Hamar king in an effort to begin the complex task of persuasion in that tribe as well.
Now attending college in the United States, he believes education will empower the next generation, especially mingi children. "I want Ethiopia to pass laws ensuring these children will be treated equally, and given priority if they want to go to college. I'm working to build this into our society culturally and legally, so whatever happens to me, they'll be protected for the future and never discriminated against."
"My father always told me that to earn respect you must help the weak and fight the strong. These children I saved are examples to everyone. They will change the world one day."