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Rancho Santa Fe resident shines light on taboo practice in documentary film ‘Children of the Omo’

Lale Labuko and John Rowe with an “Omo Child.” Courtesy photo
Lale Labuko and John Rowe with an “Omo Child.” Courtesy photo

By Kristina Houck

She gave birth to 16 children, but only two are alive today. The Ethiopian mother lost two of her children from natural causes. The other 12 were killed.

After elders of the Kara tribe declared the 12 children “mingi,” or cursed, they were sacrificed in ritual killings.

The woman’s story is among those in a documentary film by Rancho Santa Fe resident John Rowe.

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Under the working title “Omo Child” or “Children of the Omo,” the film details the secretive, taboo practice that extends back generations among tribes of Ethiopia’s Omo River valley. It also follows Rowe and Lale Labuko’s work to rescue mingi children and end the practice. For their advocacy work, the pair received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Explorers Club at a dinner on Oct. 26 in Washington, D.C.

“I think that true stories can be so much more compelling,” Rowe said. “When you have real people telling their stories, it’s very powerful.”

Although he is producer and director of the film, Rowe is primarily a photographer. Originally, he set out to document tribal life in remote regions of Africa. It was during a trip to Africa in 2004 that he met Labuko, who served as his guide and translator.

Born and raised in southwest Ethiopia, Labuko has devoted his life to rescuing mingi children. At 15 years old, Labuko became aware of the practice when he witnessed village elders taking a small child from its mother. His parents later told him about mingi, and he learned that two of his sisters had been declared mingi and killed.

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Children born out of wedlock, children whose parents have not been blessed by the elders, and children whose top teeth grow in before their lower teeth are believed to be cursed. Tribal elders fear mingi children can bring famine, drought and disease, so they are drowned in the river or left to die in the bush.

Labuko, who is studying economics on a scholarship at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, had already rescued 24 children when he informed Rowe about the practice and asked for assistance.

“At that time, he didn’t have enough money to feed the kids. He didn’t know where to turn. He asked me for help,” Rowe said. “It was a request I couldn’t refuse.”

Rowe and Labuko co-founded Omo Child, a nonprofit organization that provides a safe home and quality education for rescued mingi children. Omo Child has since rescued 13 more children, who live in two rental homes in a village called Jinka, in the region where Labuko’s home village, Dus, is located. All of the children are under 10, with many still in diapers. They are cared for by nannies hired by Omo Child.

“I never expected to do anything like this,” said Rowe, a Los Angeles native who developed and marketed video games for 25 years before becoming a photographer. “I had no intention of getting involved beyond simply getting to know the people and photographing them like I have done all over the world.

“But when Lale came to me for help, it was one of those situations where you find yourself having to respond. The only way I could respond was with all of my energy and all of my heart to try and help these kids survive.”

Omo Child has not only helped 37 children survive, but countless others who could have been killed.

Until recently, three Omo Valley tribes practiced mingi: the Kara, the Banna and the Hamer tribes. The Kara and Banna tribes have since ended the practice.

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“Omo Child is really responsible for the awareness of this whole issue,” Rowe said. “It brought it to the attention of the government of Ethiopia. It brought it to the attention of the world. People have been working to try to change that now.”

Rowe and Labuko traveled to Dus village to attend the official Kara tribal ceremony that marked the end of the practice on July 14, 2012. Since then, they have met several infants who would have been considered mingi and killed in the past. Today, they are living in the village as accepted tribal members.

“It’s remarkable,” Rowe said. “That’s really the proof that the culture has changed. It’s one thing to say they’re ending it, it’s another thing to see children who otherwise would have been killed. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Their work is not over, however, The Hamer tribe, with an estimated population of 50,000 and a more decentralized tribal governance, continues to practice mingi.

Rowe hopes his documentary will further expose the mingi practice and help end the practice completely. He has interviewed dozens of people in Ethiopia, including the parents of mingi children, tribal elders and government officials.

“It brings attention to Omo Child and the needs of 37 children who are lucky to be alive,” Rowe said. “For me, it’s all about those 37 kids.”

Committed to helping Labuko provide for the children, Rowe hopes other will hear about their story and eventually watch the documentary — which is now in post-production — and join their cause.

“We need help for these kids. That’s why we’re making the movie. That’s why I’ve continued to tell the story and all my efforts are going into this,” Rowe said. “I’m really focused on making sure that these kids are given an opportunity to have a good life.

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“We want to make sure they’re loved, well cared for, have the medicine and medical care they need, have the food they need, and get the best education possible so in the future, in this part of Ethiopia, they will be contributors to their society, and potentially be the teachers and leaders of tomorrow. That really is our goal and our dream.”

For more information about Omo Child, visit omochild.org.


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