Thursday, July 17, 2014

'I did not respect our traditions, so they killed my babies': Agony of Ethiopian mother whose 15 'cursed' children were thrown to hungry crocodiles by tribal elders

  • Buko Balguda's 15 children were declared cursed or 'mingi' by Karo village elders and murdered at birth
  • Mingi children are thought to bring the village bad luck and are killed by being thrown to crocs or left in the bush
  • Reasons for being declared mingi include being illegitimate, being a twin and having upper teeth that develop first
  • Although outlawed by the Ethiopian government, an estimated 300 children still die this way each year

Buko Balguda, 45, from Duss, a Karo tribal village in southern Ethiopia's Omo Valley, is alone. The reason? Her seven sons and eight daughters were all killed at birth by village elders who decided that the children were cursed.

'I lost five plus five plus five babies - 15 in total,' she explains. 'I had seven males and eight females. During this time, our tribal traditions were very hard. I did not respect our traditions, so they killed my children.'

And Ms Balguda is not alone. The concept of 'mingi' or cursed children remains a tenet of tribal life for the Hamer and Bana people, with elders insisting that mingi infants are killed before they can bring the rest of the tribe bad luck.
As a result - and despite efforts by the Ethiopian government to ban the practice - cursed children are murdered every day, whether by being left alone to be eaten by hyenas, thrown to hungry crocodiles or simply starved to death in a locked hut.

For Ms Balguda, the problems began before she even married, when her future husband failed to take part in her tribe's traditional bull jumping ceremony - an initiation rite for men which has to be completed before they can marry.

When he married Ms Balguda anyway, village elders declared that any children would be considered illegitimate and would be killed as soon as they were born.

But illegitimacy isn't the only reason for a child being declared 'mingi'. Others are deemed cursed because of disabilities, because their parents didn't get permission for a pregnancy from the elders, because they are a twin and most cruelly of all, because their teeth develop the wrong way

'If the first tooth appears in the upper jaw, instead of the lower, the child becomes mingi,' explains photographer Eric Lafforgue who has spent a considerable amount of time with the Karo and Hamer tribes. 'This applies to the baby teeth and the adult teeth, so older children can be killed too.

'Being declared mingi almost always means death of the child,' he continues. 'The tribe will leave the child alone in the bush without food and water or will throw the child in the middle of the river full of crocodiles.'

Although Ms Balguda wasn't required to kill her own child, she was forced to stand and watch as elders carried her babies away to their deaths. 'It was not me who killed the babies,' she remembers. 'It was other people from my village. I broke the rules of our community, so they killed my babies.'

Cruel though the practice is, village elders fear that if the children aren't killed, bad luck will blight the tribe. 'Most of the tribes in the Omo Valley still have strong superstitions,' adds Lafforgue.

'The Karo, Bana and Hamer tribes believe evil spirits or a "curse" will bring bad luck for the community, like drought, famine, disease or even death if mingi children are not killed.'

But help is at hand for some of the children. In 2012, Karo tribal elders finally agreed to put an end to the mingi tradition - in part as a result of the efforts of Lale Labuko and John Rowe, the founders of Omo Child; a charity that takes in mingi children.

Labuko, himself a member of the Karo tribe, was among the first in his village to go to school and discovered at the age of 15 that he had had two mingi sisters - both of whom were killed before he was born.

The charity, which runs an orphanage in the Omo Valley, spends much of its time trying to persuade Bana and Hamer parents to give their mingi children to foster parents outside the community instead of killing them.

But changing the local attitude to 'cursed' children has proved challenging. 'Some women who know know they are pregnant with a mingi child agree to give the baby to the organisation,' explains Lafforgue.

'But some come under pressure from the elders and change their minds, which means the baby dies. One Hamer woman I met even told me that although she wanted 10 babies, if one turned out to be mingi, she would "throw it away".'

Those that do survive are taken to an orphanage where they are raised away from their families but many more suffer a horribly early death at the hands of village elders, with an estimated 300 children thought to be killed each year.

'Although the Karo have stopped, the Bana and Hamer still practice mingi,' adds Lafforgue. 'It is illegal but elders do it in secret and nobody has been arrested for doing it so far.'

Until things change, the pain for women like Ms Balguda will continue. 'At the time, I had no choice,' she adds. 'Nowadays, when i see the women giving birth or giving milk, I feel sorry. I feel lonely. Nobody is on my side.'