Rancho Santa Fe entrepreneur finds renewed meaning in rescuing outcast children in Ethiopia
By Arthur Lightbourn
ContributorAfter 25 entrepreneurial years producing and marketing video games, John Rowe, 59, retired several years ago to pursue his first love as a globe-trotting photographer of cultures in transition.
He is also the recent co-founder of a nonprofit foundation dedicated to saving children marked for infanticide by tribes in Ethiopia.
We interviewed Rowe on the patio of his spacious “man cave” photo studio next to his home in Rancho Santa Fe where he lives with his wife of 29 years, Regina (Reggie), their two college-attending children, Tyler and Kelly, and their two dogs, Gus, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and Boomer, an aging Hungarian Vizsla.
His studio says a lot about the man. It’s filled with African artifacts, camera equipment and large “on-the-wall” photos from his African journeys, some shot for National Geographic, and action murals of surfers riding huge waves in Tahiti, his favorite getaway.
Casually dressed, physically fit, white-haired, and wearing round horn-rim glasses, Rowe looks like a man comfortable in his skin and delighted to be doing what he’s doing in this stage of his life.
Normally, he avoids interviews.
“In running companies,” he said, “I’ve always wanted to promote either products or people working for me, rather than myself.”
But, on behalf of the Omo Child Foundation, he was willing to do whatever it takes to stop the ancient practice of killing children declared “Mingi” or “ritually polluted” by certain African tribes, including the Kara and Hamar tribes in the Omo Valley of southwest Ethiopia.
Mingi children are thought to bring a curse on their village and as such are quietly marked for death by their tribal elders. The children are often drowned in the Omo River or left to die in the desert, Rowe said.
Reasons for a child being declared Mingi, he said, include being born out of wedlock, being a twin, growing teeth in the upper jaw before the lower jaw, and even chipping a tooth in childhood.
Rowe first learned of the practice during his visits to the Omo Valley, “a place that National Geographic calls the last frontier in Africa.”
“I saw these rich African cultures. I had a sense that this was something that would be changing and vanishing. I felt a certain sense of urgency to photograph as much of it as I could.”
Rowe made his first trip to Africa in 2004.
“I decided I really wanted to create a body of work around the Omo Valley and the tribes of the Omo Valley and I wanted it to be significant.
“And that was the first time I met Lale Labuko,” Rowe said. “He’s been my guide and translator in the Omo for the past seven years.”
Labuko, 29, who lost two sisters to the Mingi practice, had formed an NGO (non-governmental organization) after convincing his tribal elders to allow him to relocate the tribe’s Mingi children to a house he rented in the town of Jinka outside the tribal area.
Labuko’s organization eventually rented two houses and was caring for 28 Mingi children when they ran short of funds.
Rowe decided to help.
With Labuko as co-founder, Rowe founded the Omo Child Foundation early this year with the stated mission of stopping the killing of Mingi children, funding a home, food and education for the rescued children — and demonstrating to the children’s parents and tribal elders that the Mingi children are surviving, thriving, and will someday grow into productive contributors to their society.
Labuko’s organization, with funding from the foundation, is now caring for 33 Mingi children.
“There are 16 tribes in the Omo Valley,” Rowe said. “Three of them still practice Mingi. They maintain an ancient belief that certain children are born cursed or they become cursed. It’s a very hush, hush thing. I visited this region four or five times, for weeks at a time, before I even heard the first rumblings about this practice.”
Even Labuko, who was selected by Swedish missionaries to be educated from age 9 at a school 65 kilometers away from his village, did not learn of the practice until he was 15 and had returned to his village during a school break. He discovered that a child was taken from the village one night and drowned. His parents revealed that the child was a Mingi and that two of his sisters previously had been declared Mingi and had been killed.
“Lali [Labuko] was raised in a pastoral village,” Rowe said, “where there are cows, goats and flood recession agriculture. This is how they survive. There’s no medical care of any kind. There’s no electricity. There’s no communication with the outside world. There are no cars. There’s no money. Your ‘money’ is on all fours. It’s your cows and your goats, that’s your money.”
On the day of the interview, Labuko was in Rowe’s house as a guest on his way to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, to begin studies on a full scholarship.
Rowe was born in Los Angeles. His father was a chartered public accountant.
In high school, Rowe recalls, the only class he enjoyed was photography.
“I used to be really embarrassed that I couldn’t say I graduated from college and I’ve finally gotten to the point in my life where at least I admit it and I talk about it openly,” Rowe said. “Life is all about growing and learning and as long as I keep learning and growing I think I’m going to be OK.”
So during the Vietnam War, when he enlisted in the Navy Reserve and they sent him to the U.S. Navy School of Photography in Pensacola, Florida, that was definitely “OK.”
Returning to civilian life, he studied management at the University of Southern California, but “dropped out” in his senior year to join a firm started by a friend and former Secret Service agent that arranged security for travelling VIPs.
One of his first assignments was as an advance man to arrange for the travel security of Henry Kissinger, who had just left government service and was a private consultant.
Later, Rowe joined a security consultant firm in London, England, that arranged travel security for members of the Royal Saudi family and other private clients.
“I learned so much.” Rowe said. “It really was, for me, a much better education than had I spent that last semester at USC getting my degree,” he concluded.
Returning to the U.S., and having saved up some money, he spent time teaching sailing and racing sail boats out of Newport Beach while he contemplated what he might do next.
“I got a call one morning at 2 a.m. from Japan,” he said.
It was from a former sailing student of his who had returned to his native Japan after college to join video games company SNK, that wanted to open an office in California.
That was Rowe’s introduction to the video games industry.
As a consultant, he helped set up the company’s California office, and subsequently was appointed executive vice president.
Five years later, he launched his own company, importing video games from Japan and buying the rights to the games for use in arcades and movie theaters. In less than a year, he secured the rights to Ikari Warriors, his first big hit, with others to follow.
“And from that we ended up buying our first big company, Cinematronics,” a pioneering arcade game developer in El Cajon, that later became the Leland Corporation, with Rowe serving as its president and CEO from 1985 to 1990.
About that time, Nintendo launched its home games entertainment system, he said.
“So I immediately got on a plane to Japan to see what was available that I could license for the Nintendo system that we could sell here in the U.S. I was lucky enough to get the rights for our company to a game called Double Dragon. And this thing just took off and was really, really big.
“The arcade game business and the manufacturing of the big cabinets fell by the wayside and we concentrated on making games for computers and for Nintendo and Sony Play Station,” he said. “We really liked making sports and dragon games.”
When Leland was acquired by WMS Industries, Rowe stayed on for five years as director of product development for the Midway Games division before launching High Moon Studios in Carlsbad to produce video games and short computer-graphic animated films.
Over the course of his 25-year career, Rowe estimates his companies sold more than $1 billion in video games.
As he approached the Big Five O, “I really wanted to get back to what I love. You manage companies and manage people …and all of a sudden digital photography came on the scene.
He bought a small Fuji digital camera.
“On business trips, to relieve the stress of the day, I’d take my camera and go out on the street and do street photography or go to some nice gardens, particularly in Tokyo.
“As I started to plan for the next phase in my life, I got more and more involved in photography. I got better equipment. And, I started travelling a lot, for photography.”
He sold High Moon Studios to Vivendi Universal and retired in 2005.
“Over the past several years, I’ve been to Africa once or twice a year, sometimes for as long as three months at a time, because I’ve been trying to assemble a body of photographic work on the indigenous and tribal cultures in Africa — Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa.
“Their worlds are changing very rapidly, primarily as the modern world starts to come in around them, whether it be dams, roads, or just people. This is the last opportunity really in many of these places to see people in their native cultures.”
You can view samples of Rowe’s photography and learn more about the Omo Child Foundation at
Former video games entrepreneur, now a globe-trotting photographer, is co-founder of the San Diego-based nonprofit Omo Child Foundation, dedicated to saving children who have been declared as “ritually polluted” and marked for death by their tribes in the Omo Valley of Southwest Ethiopia.
Rancho Santa Fe
U.S. Navy School of Photography, Pensacola, Florida; and studied management at the University of Southern California and left in his senior year to join a firm arranging security for travelling VIPs.
He and his wife, Regina (Reggie), have been married 29 years and have two children: son, Tyler, a senior, majoring in film production at Chapman University, Orange, California, and daughter, Kelly, a freshman at Cal State San Marcos.
“Circling the Sacred Mountain: A Spiritual Adventure Through the Himalayas,” by Robert Thurman.
“The Office,” news programs and Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”
“Best of Show,” a 2000 comedy set in the world of dog shows, and “O Brother, Who Art Thou,” a Coen brothers comedy starring George Clooney and John Goodman.
“The Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated…[and] Life is all about growing and learning and as long as I keep learning and growing I think I’m going to be OK.”