Saturday, April 14, 2012

Saving the condemned children of Ethiopia - Telegraph

In remote Ethiopia, where tribes still practise ritual infanticide, one man has made it his mission to save the children

Saving the cursed children of Ethiopia
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Lale Labuko with Jessica. She was left out in the bush to die by her parents who, because she was born out of wedlock, believed her to be cursed Photo: Jessica Davis (
Lale Labuko is driving to lunch in the provincial town of Jinka, in southwest Ethiopia, when the call comes through on his mobile. He stops and gets out of the Land Cruiser, a tall, broad-shouldered man in his late twenties, wearing a purple polo shirt, black jeans and Nikes. His face, normally so calm and dignified, becomes tense and anxious. He gives a few quick instructions in the Kara tribal language, jumps back behind the wheel and accelerates away.
'We have a mingi birth, a baby girl,’ he says. 'She was born yesterday morning, but the phone was not working yesterday. Now we must hurry. No one will give her any milk and many people in the village want her dead.’
The baby’s misfortune is that her parents aren’t married. In the traditional Kara belief system this means she is cursed, unclean, full of sin, bringing malevolent spirits and bad luck to her family, village and tribe. All this evil is contained in the word mingi (pronounced with a hard 'g’).
For many generations, the Kara and two neighbouring tribes have killed these babies, putting them out in the bush to starve or be eaten by wild animals. If a mingi child is allowed to live, they believe, its family members will start dying off and then lethal droughts, famines and diseases will ensue. Infanticide is performed as a sad, solemn ritual to prevent greater suffering.
Married couples must get permission from the elders to have a baby. If there’s an accidental pregnancy, which happens often in a tribal culture with no access to contraception, this too is mingi and the parents have to kill the baby. Twins are mingi, and one or both are killed, depending on the tribe. The evil curse can also manifest in a child’s teeth. If the first tooth appears in the upper jaw, instead of the lower, the child becomes mingi, and this applies to the baby teeth and the adult teeth.
Older children with teeth mingi are normally pushed off high cliffs by the elders, or thrown in the river to drown or be eaten by crocodiles. The practice is illegal and clandestine. No one involved is keeping count, but the usual estimate is that 300 children are being killed a year.
Lale Labuko, one of the first Karas to get an education, is working to end the infanticide through his organisation Omo Child. Here in Jinka, on a thinly stretched budget of donor money, he runs two warm, loving shelter homes for rescued mingi children.
In total, he has 30 children under his care, and the baby girl born yesterday was supposed to be the 31st. During the pregnancy, her parents agreed to give the baby to Omo Child. But at the last moment the mother changed her mind and hewed to tradition. She walked out into the bush with her mother, gave birth under a thorn tree, and left the baby there to die.
One of Labuko’s supporters in the village, a tough young warrior called Silbo Shanko, went out and found the baby still alive. Shanko is now looking after her, keeping away the villagers who think she should be killed, and waiting for Labuko to send a rescue party.
Sitting in the passenger seat, I make the calculations. Dus village is eight hours away. By the time a rescue vehicle can get there, assuming that nothing goes wrong on bad roads at night in a region of simmering tribal conflict and banditry, this baby girl will have spent the first 40 hours of her life without any nourishment.
Labuko says she can make it, that newborn babies are tougher than you might expect, but he’s driving across town as fast as he can, scattering goats, chickens and pedestrians, and raising a cloud of ochre dust.
To the modern Western mind, the idea of parents deliberately killing their own children – abandoning them to die of starvation, exposure or predation, or throwing them in rivers – sounds almost unimaginably cruel and heartless. We tend to forget that infanticide by these methods was commonplace in Europe and America until the late 19th century, and that England was particularly notorious for it. Effective contraception and legal abortion curbed the practice in the West, although it does still occur on a small scale.
Scholars of infanticide have found it so widespread in human history, across all cultures and continents, that they have deemed it normal human behaviour. The killing of newborn girls is still rife in China, India, Bangladesh and other parts of Asia, even as cheap sonograms and abortions are taking over as a way to get rid of unwanted daughters. In Africa, mothers without access to contraception or abortion will sometimes kill babies they don’t want, or can’t afford, but only in a few remote areas on the continent are people systematically killing babies for magical reasons, in the belief that they carry an evil curse.
Nowhere in Africa is more remote than the valley of the lower Omo river in the far south-west of Ethiopia. Isolated by mountains to the north, swamps to the west and deserts to the south, the lower Omo is the world’s last great tribal stronghold. Untouched by colonialism, largely ungoverned and only tenuously connected to the rest of Ethiopia, the valley is a vast elongated basin occupied by 16 tribes, totalling some 220,000 people.
They live by herding cattle and goats, planting crops after the river floods its banks, and conducting violent raids on each others’ livestock. Many wear animal skins and adorn themselves with mud, paint, goat fat, ostrich feathers, lip plates, elaborate hairstyles, piercings and scarification patterns. In the West, we used to call them the most primitive tribes in Africa. Now we say they are the most culturally intact, although that is changing rapidly.
Labuko grew up naked in a hut of grass and sticks near the Omo river. He learnt to herd cattle and goats like any other Kara boy, to hunt with spears and bows-and-arrows, and paint his body for dances and ceremonies. He was an exceptionally fast runner and killed his first oryx (a type of antelope) with a knife. When he was nine years old, for reasons that Labuko still doesn’t fully understand, his traditionalist father attracted the scorn and ridicule of his peers by sending him to a boarding school run by Swedish missionaries. With a small group of other Kara boys, Labuko walked barefoot to the school across 65 miles of bush, lighting fires at night to keep away the lions and hyenas, and making detours to skirt the territory of enemy tribes.
At school he saw Western clothes, books, pens and paper for the first time. The missionaries gave him one pair of shorts and a shirt, and introduced him to the Bible and Christianity. He learnt to read and write in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, and later in English. There were boys from other Omo tribes at the school and he learnt their languages too. At night they slept on straw mats in a pestilential dormitory.
'Life in our villages was hard, but we suffered more at school,’ Labuko says. 'Bed bugs bit us while we slept. Biting insects were always on us. Everyone had sores. Often we had no food and I became very thin. When the term was finished, I would walk the 100km back to my village. I made that walk four, sometimes six times a year. The heat was the worst part. You couldn’t walk at midday because the rocks were too hot for bare feet, even though our feet were very tough.’
When he was 15, back in the village visiting his family, he saw the elders grabbing a two-year-old girl away from her mother. The mother tried desperately to hold on to her daughter but the men were too strong. They ran towards the river with the screaming infant, as the mother sobbed and wailed and Labuko looked on in horror.
'I asked my mother what was happening and she explained all about mingi,’ he says. 'The girl was “teeth mingi”. This is why the elders have to kill her. Then she told me that I had two older sisters who were mingi. My parents were married but they didn’t have permission for children, so they put them – my sisters – out in the bush to die.’
That was when Labuko decided that he would fight against the belief in mingi and save children from being killed. Even now his eyes well up with tears when he talks about the sisters he never met, 'My parents call me the first-born, but I was not.’
At the shelter home in Jinka, Labuko loads up a four-wheel-drive vehicle with nappies, baby formula, blankets, spare tyres and cans of extra petrol, while excited toddlers and older child­ren swarm around him – children who would all be dead were it not for Labuko. One of his nannies gets into the back seat, a gentle unflappable woman in her thirties called Tshanshe Ayele. A driver takes the keys, and Labuko’s friend and colleague Ariyo Dore, another educated Kara, gets into the passenger seat. Before they leave, Labuko calls Dus village again. The baby girl is still alive, but no one – not even her protector, Shanko, who thinks mingi is nonsense – will give her any milk or formula.
'Only water,’ Dore says. 'If someone feeds her, they will not be able to live in the village. No one will talk to them. No one will eat or drink sorghum beer with them. They cannot come into the ceremony house. They will be outcasts.’
The vehicle leaves Jinka and speeds away through scrubby hills, gradually leaving behind the Ethiopia of bicycles, mobile phones and Western clothing, and entering the tribal lands of the lower Omo basin. Near the small town of Dimeka, men and women of the Hamer tribe are walking along the dusty roadside. Most of the men are shirtless, wearing beaded headbands and necklaces and a rectangle of cloth tied around their hips. Every one of them carries a small, carved wooden stool that doubles as a pillow at night, a snuff pouch, a long knife and an AK-47. The guns come from South Sudan to the west and Somalia to the east; some date from the collapse of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia in 1991, when demobilised soldiers and police came here to trade their weapons for cattle. For as long as anyone can remember, the Omo tribes have conducted murderous raids and reprisals against each other, especially in times of scarce grazing, but they used to be armed with spears and bows. With every­one carrying AK-47s, the death toll from these conflicts has risen dramatically.
Just a few days ago, Dassenech tribesmen killed 25 Turkanas coming north from the Kenyan border with their cattle. A few days before that, the Kara raided their enemies the Nyangatom, killing a man and making off with 800 goats. Now everyone is waiting for the Nyangatom to come across the river and strike back. Part of Labuko and Dore’s work with Omo Child is to host peace talks between the tribes, but the raiding and revenge is deeply entrenched, and getting worse as the climate changes and droughts become more frequent.
The Hamer women, powerfully muscled and shining from the goat fat they rub into their skin, stride along topless in goatskin skirts. They wear heavy metal collars, and their hair hangs down in a bowl-cut of braids worked with ochre mud and goat fat. The Hamer are one of the three tribes that kill mingi children and they also have a way of aborting mingi pregnancies, by reaching up inside the woman and crushing the foetus’s head.
Outsiders who hear about mingi infanticide often assume it is a primitive form of population control, but there is no evidence to support this view. All the tribes in the valley, whether they practise infanticide or not, are increasing their numbers at the same rapid rate. The Kara have grown from 1,000 to 5,000 in Labuko’s lifetime, and the Hamer are the most numerous of all, with 57,000 people. For the tribes that believe in mingi – the Kara, Hamer and Bena – killing these children is a way to keep their populations increasing, by averting the famines and plagues that they think would come if they let the cursed children live.
The slanting sun illuminates a landscape of thorn scrub and acacia trees, stick and grass huts, teenage goatherds with long thin legs and AK-47s decorated with feathers and monkey fur, and then a tour bus full of European tourists, who have come down a long hard road from Addis Ababa to photograph the wild tribes. Some Hamer and Kara villages are now charging tourists to photograph their sacred bull-jump ceremonies, in which young men run naked across the backs of bulls, and young women demand to be whipped until the blood runs down their backs. The resulting scars are a source of pride among the women, and also an insurance policy for the future: the man who puts the scars on her back is obliged to look after her if her husband should die.
Labuko and Dore hope that the rescued mingi children will return to their birth villages as teenagers and go through the initiation ritual of the bull jump. Otherwise, they won’t be able to marry within the tribe, or be considered members of the tribe. At present, the idea of mingi children bull-jumping is anathema to the tribal elders, but this is a time of big changes in the lower Omo, and the old certainties are crumbling away. More and more young people are going to school, learning about the outside world and rejecting the belief in mingi. Better roads are bringing in more tourists, modern goods are appearing in the markets, television is arriving, and the Ethiopian government, with Chinese money and Italian engineers, is building a gigantic dam on the Omo river to generate hydro-electric power. The seasonal floods, on which the tribes have always depended to grow crops and bring up grazing for their livestock, are expected to come to an end in the next year or two.
Meanwhile a newborn baby girl weakens on the lap of a warrior in Dus village. Night has fallen and the road has turned into an interbraided confusion of narrow sandy tracks meandering through dense thorn scrub. Dore is navigating and it’s one fork in the road after another. He gets out at one point, looks around in the moonlight, overrules the driver, and prevents a plunge into a deep chasm. If Dore can keep making the right decisions, Dus village is two hours away.
Lale Labuko feels singled out by fate or God to guide his people through this time, to bridge them between two worlds. Even as a schoolboy he would bring back news, stories and information to the village, and people would gather round him to hear it. At the age of 10 he astonished the village by explaining that he had seen something called a film. It was a story come to life in moving pictures on a wall and it concerned the feats of a great warrior called Rambo.
Now Labuko has flown halfway round the world on aero­planes. He has seen snow and ocean, the great cities of Germany and America, the Grand Canyon, and the Lakers play basketball in Los Angeles. Soon he will speak at Harvard University about his life and work. He handles these cultural transitions with a rare grace and poise, and an air of wise benevolence that one associates with a much older man.
After the missionary school, he went to a government school and then into business as a roving ammunition trader. He bought bullets for AK-47s at a good price from the Dassenech in the south, and sold them at a profit to the Kara and Hamer, using his languages and his missionary school connections. There was always a ready market. AK-47s have become such an integral part of tribal life that a young man can’t get married without one. The going price for a bride is 30 bulls, an AK-47 and a clip of 30 bullets, paid upfront to her family.
Then he worked as a guide for an abusive Dutch­man (now deceased) who ran photographic safaris among the tribes from a camp on the Omo river. All through these years, Labuko was wondering how he could stop the mingi infanticide. Kara society, like most tribal society, is extremely conservative. It venerates elders, ancestors and tradition, and is deeply suspicious of change. The elders told him, and will tell you today, that the Kara had already tried letting mingi children live. The result was drought, famine, starvation and disease. Only when they started killing mingi children again did it start to rain and life returned to normal.
'The first thing was to work on the elders,’ Labuko says. 'I requested a meeting in the ceremony hut, and I asked all the young educated people to come with me. I explained that we wanted to stop this harmful practice. I said, “There is no need to kill these mingi children. Let us simply remove them from the tribe, and the curse will leave with them.” I don’t believe the curse is real, but when you are travelling a long way, it is best to start slowly.’
The response was anger and complete rejection. Labuko’s parents were furious that he would suggest such a heretical idea, and also worried that he would be cursed or banished. Over the next four months, using reasoned persuasion, Labuko managed to change his father’s mind. His father being a respected man, this led to more converts as he went family to family through the village. Labuko made his case again in the ceremony hut, and some elders reluctantly agreed to let him remove some mingi children and see what happened.
The next obstacle was the government, whose official position was that mingi infanticide was no longer practised in Ethiopia, so nothing needed to be done. Labuko persuaded them otherwise and formed a good working partnership. He secured his first funding from a German church group and is now funded by a California-based non-profit organisation. His responsibilities are endless. Apart from the two shelter homes he runs and his 30 rescued children, he has two daughters of his own to bring up. He is also continuing his education and spending as much time as possible in the long, slow, ongoing process of tribal politics.
I’ve seen him in action, sitting on a tiny stool in a hut full of elders, or under a shade tree, everyone drinking coffee from calabash gourds, and spraying out the first mouthful as a blessing. Labuko is good-humoured and persistent, and employs every ounce of his charm. He gets frustrated sometimes but never angry or disrespectful – this would be almost unthinkable for him, because he loves and reveres the elders, and knows that his education is the only real difference between them.
'In the long run, education will defeat mingi,’ he says. 'So I ask families to put at least one child in school. Education will also solve our conflicts, our medical problems, and help us deal with all these changes we cannot avoid. In 20 years, this mingi will be over. But now they are killing children, many children, so I never rest. I just work and work.’
Dus village comes into view: conical huts, a line of people wrapped in cloth and skins, a few T-shirts, many goats. Silbo Shanko sits on the edge of the village and cradles the baby in a way that suggests that no one should even think about trying to get to her.
No one challenges the nanny as she gets out of the vehicle and walks with calm, relaxed determination towards the baby. No one says a word as she gets out a plastic basin, fills it with water, and takes the baby from Shanko. The baby cries as she washes off dried blood, and continues to cry when Shanko takes her back. The nanny mixes up a bottle of formula and water. The faces in the crowd look sombre, awed, and the only sound is the baby crying. The nanny takes her back, lowers the teat of the bottle, and the crying stops instantly as the baby feeds for the first time.
Swaddled in a blanket, cradled into the nanny’s chest, she sleeps for the whole eight hours back to Jinka, where the staff welcome her ecstatically as a beautiful Kara girl and Labuko gives her the name of Jessica. She begins the life of an orphan whose parents are still alive and tried to kill her. She will get her vaccinations and grow up near a hospital. She will go to a functioning school. In many ways, her curse may turn out to be a blessing.
Back in Dus, the elders are not happy about any of this. Three days after the rescue, they gather in the shade of a big spreading acacia tree, and sit on their tiny stools with feathered plumes, clay skullcaps and tonsured scalps, scars notched across their chests for every enemy killed. The rains have failed, the crops have failed, and some strange new disease is killing children all over the village (measles). How can they ignore the fact that all this has coincided with letting mingi children live? There are calls to start killing them again, delivered in passionate oratory.
The council is all men, but the following day I sit down with Labuko and an old woman called Muko. She wears a tattered goatskin skirt and nothing else. Behind her flows the murky brown Omo river, with crocodiles hanging motionless in the current. She sits on a log and stares at the ground as she talks. In her life she has given birth to 16 children, but the first 12 were born before she and her husband were married. They wanted to get married but he couldn’t amass the necessary goats and cattle for the bride price. So she put those 12 babies out in the bush to die.
'For a mother it is painful to kill her children,’ she says, 'but I was more concerned about the community and my family.’ Then she looks up and stares right at Labuko: 'I did the right thing. You will see. More curses and death will come because of these children you are rescuing. Is that what you want for your people?’
Then her shoulders crumple forward and she looks back at the ground. 'This is a time for the young people,’ she says. 'Let them decide. I am finished now.’

In remote Ethiopia, where tribes still practise ritual infanticide, one man has made it his mission to save the children

Saving the cursed children of Ethiopia
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Silbo Shanko, one of Omo Child's supporters, who rescued Jessica Photo: Jessica Davis (

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