“I saw the elders grab the two-year-old girl. The baby was crying and the mother was crying but the elders were stronger. They took her and drowned her in the river.”
Lale Labuko was just a schoolboy when he watched his first tribal killing. Distraught by the murder he witnessed, he asked his mother what was happening.
“Don’t cry” she replied. “One day you will have to kill your own children too.”
Lale had just witnessed the tradition of Mingi in his village in the Omo Valley, south west Ethiopia. It was two decades ago but the practice still happens and sorrow spreads over the tribesman’s face as he recalls the barbaric death.
“Cursed” children are routinely murdered in a bid to ward off evil and protect the tribal community.
Lale’s mother’s response was one of reluctant acceptance. She told her son his two oldest sisters were killed as soon as they were born because they were conceived out of wedlock. Their deaths had been decided before they were born and they didn’t live long enough even to be given names.
Explaining the superstitious sacrifice to a horrified Lale, his mother said: “It is your culture and you must accept that.”
The tradition of Mingi has seen thousands upon thousands of babies and infants murdered by members of the Kara, Hamer and Bena tribes. There is no official count but estimates suggest that 300 children a year still die because of the “curse.”
A child is considered Mingi for a number of reasons. Babies born to unwed mothers or from a union that has not been blessed by elders, twins and children whose top teeth grow before the bottom ones are believed “cursed.”
The tribes think if they are allowed to live then these children will bring death, disease, drought or war to the area.
Therefore they must die. They are routinely taken by the elders, drowned in a river or thrown from a great height. Sometimes they are left to starve, abandoned to be eaten by wild animals or suffocated by having dirt stuffed into their mouths.
The methods are horrific but something so ingrained within the culture of the Omo Valley – often referred to as the last wild frontier in Africa.
Lale, from the Kara tribe, explained: “Many many hundreds of years ago there was a child born and the top teeth came first. The community thought ‘oh this is weird, it might be a curse’.
“As the child grew up there was a drought and a famine and people died. So, the elders of the village related this back to the child. The Kings of the three tribes – Kara, Hamer and Bena – came together and the Mingi curse was born.
“The people who are killing the Mingi children are not bad people. It is a culture that has existed for many many years and they truly believe in it. That is how they explain droughts and diseases.
“You have to remember as we well these people are not educated either. While murder is illegal, these people do not know what they are doing is wrong. They say ‘it’s my culture and my heritage’ and it is very hard to put people into prison for that.”
Lale grew up in a grass hut and knew how to herd cows and kill wild animals for food. At the age of nine, his father defied custom to send him to a school run by Swedish missionaries. He was one of the first in his tribe to receive a Western education and several times a year would walk the 65 miles back home to the village of Dus. It was during one of these trips at the age of 15 that he witnessed the death of the two-year-old girl. She was ‘Teeth Mingi” because her teeth appeared in the upper jaw first.
Then and there, Lale made a vow to stop the infanticide. He trained as a teacher and, alongside his wife Gido, he set up the Omo Child charity. They have spent the last nine years trying to educate the tribal communities and rescuing children doomed to die.
For Lale, who thinks he is about 36 years old, it has been a life-threatening battle, although he refuses to be drawn on any specific details. It is known that he and his supportive parents have faced many death threats and been ostracized by people.
“To even be questioning this was taboo” he said. “People were angry and the elders wouldn’t accept what I was saying. It was risky for my life. When I discussed with the elders in public, I told them Mingi is a blessing. In general children are a blessing. They are the future.
“During a meeting I asked the Kara Kings: “Who is guilty, the parents who had sex before marriage or the baby? The child is innocent so why do we kill the baby? Why are the parents not punished for breaking tribal law about sex before marriage?
“The Kings listened when I said I wanted to rescue the children and find them a home.”
Lale was successful in stopping Mingi within his own Kara tribe in 2012.
A formal ceremony was held to mark the end of Mingi after which a terrific dust storm swept through the region bringing much-needed rains. The elders took it as a good omen.
However, ritual killings still go on within the Hamer and Bena tribes, whose numbers total around 250,000 people.
With his charity Omo Child, he speaks to people in the communities to try to get them to rethink their policies. He also negotiates with them to allow him to take “Mingi” youngsters to stay at his orphanage in Jinka.
Since 2008, he has saved 50 children now aged between 16 months and 15 years old. They attend private school in the town and many are still in touch with their families and communities. They are now the best-educated members of their tribes and the hope is they can return when they are adults.
Activist Lale said many young people are changing their minds about Mingi but there is still a long way to go. The tradition is very ingrained in a remote and inaccessible area, which is largely untouched by modern life and outside influence.
Lale said: “Most of the young are changing but it’s the older people, they are the ones who are sticking to the traditions.
“There can be a lot of resistance to us taking the children because they still think there will be a curse. I say ‘let me take them and the curse; it will come to me.’ People thought I was going to die because of it so they are very surprised I’m still alive.”
Lale has support on the ground in the villages. Sometimes a woman who knows she is about to give birth to a “Mingi” child will come to Jinka to seek him out before the birth.
Other times, the charity will get a call and supportive locals will attempt to care for the child until someone from Omo Child can navigate the inhospitable terrain to arrive.
One such rescue involved a newborn girl Tinsea, who was born to an unmarried mother. Lale said: “She was left in a hut to die. But my friend Bonna Shapoo gave her water for two weeks while we negotiated with the community to take her. When they agreed, she was little more than a skeleton. We got her to the hospital and the doctors said ‘she won’t survive’. But we prayed and prayed and thankfully God healed her.”
Now Tinsea is a lively five-year-old but there are many children who cannot be saved. “We haven’t always managed to rescue children from Mingi. It is still happening” Lale explained. “We don’t have a vehicle and so sometimes we are too late. We didn’t get the message on time or sometimes the family doesn’t want the child rescuing because they still have fears. It’s sad and very depressing.
“But when we rescue one child; that is one life. And I’m so happy because I see the children and I see my sisters so I believe in a way that I have rescued my sisters and they are still alive.”
Lale believes there will come a time when Mingi is stopped but doubts it will be in his lifetime. It is the Mingi children themselves who will break the pattern of ritualistic death.
“It’s the Hamer and Bena boys and girls in my care who will stop Mingi, not me. I now believe Mingi is a blessing and not a curse. These children are blessings and, by them telling people, that is how we will change people’s minds about Mingi.”
Ed.’s Note: Jane Wharton is a volunteer at The Reporter.
Contributed by Jane Wharton