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.
When did you find out about this practice?
I was around 15. A village elder grabbed a two-year-old from the mother, and the mother was crying. I was not sure what was going on. My mother said, “Lale, some children in the tribe are declared mingi,and they kill them.” She said mingi means “cursed.”
How are the children killed?
Sometimes they’re left in the bush, no water, no nothing. Or they’re pushed off a cliff.
When did you first try to take action?
In 2008 I said to the elders, you think these children are cursed and bring disease and famine. Could you give me a child? Maybe the curse will follow me. Some elders agreed: “Let’s try and see.”
How big a risk was this?
Others warned me: “You rescue the children, one day [the tribe is] going to kill you.”
Clearly you didn’t listen.
Yes. And my tribe [the Kara] has stopped [the practice] completely. But the Hamer tribe still practices it. It’s hard to change an ancient culture.
Do you tell the children you’ve rescued about the fate they escaped?
They are too young. I tell them, “You are here for school.” When they are older, I will explain, “This is a custom. It’s not your parents’ fault. It was good I rescued you guys.” This year I got an email from National Geographic recognizing me as an “emerging explorer.” These children, one day, they will be the next emerging explorers. X