National Geographic : 2013 Dec
Child Saver lale labuko will never know some things about himself—like his birth date. His tribe in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley keeps no written records (his best guess is October, early eighties). But one thing he knows with absolute surety: He will not rest until he halts the custom of killing babies born out of wedlock, born to parents who didn’t get permission from the elders to have a child, or whose teeth grow in top first instead of the usual bottom up. These babies are believed to be cursed. Labuko has rescued 37 children, ages one to eleven; they live in a home he built with the help of California photographer and filmmaker John Rowe, co-founder of Labuko’s Omo Child organization. When did you find out about this practice? I was around 15. A village elder grabbed a two-year-old from the mother, and the mother was crying. I was not sure what was going on. My mother said, “Lale, some children in the tribe are declared mingi, and they kill them.” She said mingi means “cursed.” How are the children killed? Sometimes they’re left in the bush, no water, no nothing. Or they’re pushed off a cliff. When did you first try to take action? In 2008 I said to the elders, you think these children are cursed and bring disease and famine. Could you give me a child? Maybe the curse will follow me. Some elders agreed: “Let’s try and see.” How big a risk was this? Others warned me: “You rescue the children, one day [the tribe is] going to kill you.” Clearly you didn’t listen. Yes. And my tribe [the Kara] has stopped [the practice] completely. But the Hamer tribe still practices it. It’s hard to change an ancient culture. Do you tell the children you’ve rescued about the fate they escaped? They are too young. I tell them, “You are here for school.” When they are older, I will explain, “This is a custom. It’s not your parents’ fault. It was good I rescued you guys.” This year I got an email from National Geographic recognizing me as an “emerging explorer.” These children, one day, they will be the next emerging explorers. THE NEW AGE OF EXPLORATION | RISK TAKER By Marc Silver Photograph by Marco Grob Watch Marco Grob’s video interview with Lale Labuko on our digital editions.