By Joe Tash
Over the past four or five years, Lale Labuko saved more than three dozen Ethiopian children from certain death at the hands of their own tribes, who considered them cursed.
Now, with the help of Rancho Santa Fe resident John Rowe, Labuko wants to assure the futures of those 37 rescued children.
The vehicle for the pair’s efforts is Omo Child, a nonprofit organization co-founded by the two men who come from very different backgrounds on the opposite sides of the globe.
Rowe, 61, a Los Angeles native, spent 25 years developing and marketing video games before retiring from business and turning to his lifelong passion, photography. It was during a photographic trip to Africa in 2004 that he met Labuko, who served as his guide and translator.
Labuko, 30, has devoted himself to rescuing “mingi” children from the poverty-stricken region where he was born and raised in southwest Ethiopia. Along with his work with Omo Child, Labuko is studying economics on a scholarship at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Recently, Labuko was recognized for his humanitarian work by National Geographic magazine as one of 17 “Emerging Explorers” for 2013, joining a distinguished class of young scientists, entrepreneurs and artists.
In an interview in the photography studio of Rowe’s home, the two said they are dedicated to providing for the needs of the 37 children, from food and shelter to education and health care. To do so, they will continue to seek support through their website,
Labuko has rented two homes in a village called Jinka, in the region where his own home village, Dus, is located. The children are cared for by nannies who are hired by Omo Child. All of the children are under 12; many are still in diapers. While Labuko is studying in the U.S., his wife, Gido, manages the program in Ethiopia and raises the couple’s two young daughters.
His dream, Labuko said, is to educate the mingi children so they can become productive members of Ethiopian society, and one day help other unfortunates.
The term mingi refers to children who are marked as cursed by their tribes. According to Rowe and Labuko, the secretive, taboo practice extends back generations among tribes of Ethiopia’s Omo River valley.
Among those labeled as cursed are children born out of wedlock; twins; and those whose top teeth grow in before their lower teeth. Tribal elders fear the mingi children can bring famine, drought and disease. To get rid of the curse, the mingi children are killed, either by drowning in the river, or being left to die in the bush.
Last year, Labuko achieved a major milestone when he convinced his own tribe, the Kara, to abandon the practice. He has now turned his attention to another tribe, called the Hamer, which still conducts the killings.
“If the Hamer people see the Kara ended mingi and nothing happened,” said Labuko, they may be more willing to consider changing their ways. On the day the Kara stopped the practice, he said, it rained, an event witnessed by tribal kings and elders.
“That’s the symbol of blessing,” he said.
Labuko first became aware of the practice when he was 15, and witnessed a small child being taken from its mother by village elders. He pressed his parents to explain what had happened, and they told him about mingi. He later learned that two of his sisters had been declared mingi and killed.
Along with trying to end the practice of mingi, Labuko has also been systematically rescuing children labeled with the curse, talking tribal elders into letting him take them to the home he established in Jinka.
With 37 children under the program’s wing, Labuko said he feels a duty to provide for their future.
“If we don’t care for them, the tribes will think they’re still mingi. I want them to see they’re blessed, not cursed,” he said.
Rowe is working on a documentary to further expose the mingi practice and hasten its end. He has interviewed dozens of people in Ethiopia, including the parents of mingi children, government officials and tribal elders. One focus is to learn more about the origin of the practice.
“The truth is they don’t really know. It’s been going on for generations,” Rowe said.
Before becoming involved in the Omo Child cause, said Rowe, his objective was to document tribal life in remote regions of Africa before it vanished through the encroachment of modern life.
“I didn’t expect to be involved in anything like this,” he said. “The last thing I wanted was to start a nonprofit.”
But he’s committed now to helping Labuko provide for the mingi children.
“I hope someone will read this and it will touch their heart and they will want to help these kids,” he said.
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