In remote Ethiopia, where tribes still practise ritual infanticide, one man has made it his mission to save the children
|Lale Labuko with children from his tribe, the Kara, by the Omo river in south-west Ethiopia|
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.