Erica Usher is Chair of the Project Matrix Group, a sub-group of the Diplomatic Spouses Group of Ethiopia. Currently on leave from the Canadian diplomatic service, Erica has lived in Addis Ababa for two years. Erica is a great friend of supporter of Omo Child and recently travled to both the Omo Child home in Jinka as well as witnessing part of the Hamer tribe end Mingi in the Omo Valley. She recently wrote about here experience and we would love to share it with our supporters.
“Erica, take a look at this website, can you help?” It took a couple of more emails from my friend Abiy urging me to follow the link to the Omo Child website before I could sit down to do it. Although I had lived in Ethiopia for one year already, I still had not explored much of the south, including the Omo Valley, and I was not familiar with the tribes of the south and their traditions. Mind you, when I shared what I read about Omo Child with my Ethiopian friends in Addis Ababa, they too had never heard of “mingi”.
I was appalled. It took no time for me to contact the Foundation to see how we could help, and to have its request for funding approved by the Diplomatic Spouses Group. I was able to hand over the cheque personally to Lale and John – Omo Child co-founders – and to hear more of Lale’s story. One cannot help but be affected by the tenaciousness of this young man who is devoting himself to changing generations of tribal tradition. When Lale then invited me to participate in the blessing ceremony at the children’s home in Jinka, my friend Abiy insisted on taking me so I could see for myself.
Ethiopia is a beautiful country. The terrain changes dramatically from one region to the next, and after travelling for two days by car from Addis to Jinka I could see there was something distinctive about the Omo Valley that I had not experienced in other parts of Ethiopia. There was beauty in the banana plantations and cotton fields, in the weaver bird nests and the woven beehives hanging in trees, and in the hills terraced with small fields by generations of farmers. Further south the acacia trees, dry riverbeds and scrubland gave a more stereotypical African appearance. It seemed that every few kilometres the dress and the hairstyle of the people I met on the road changed; there are so many different tribes. There was a uniquely different “feel” to the south. Yet this “feel” does not betray the south’s dark secret – the killing of innocent children believed to be cursed, and the dedication of one man to reveal the secret and bring this tradition to an end.
In Jinka everyone at the children’s home was very welcoming. The pre-school aged children were happily playing games supervised by caring nannies. One would not know these children had once been rescued from the arms of death. The home itself was clean and fresh and bright. I was shown the children’s beds, the water tank, generator and the washing machine that were purchased with the funds from my group. I had no doubts that our donation to help support these children was well spent.
The blessing celebration brought together kings and respected elders from the Hamar, Bane and Kara tribes with the children who had been rescued by Omo Child. I hoped that when the kings and respected elders saw that these “mingi” children were healthy and happy they would realize their mistake, and it would fuel Lale’s efforts to convince them to stop.
At the meeting of the kings and elders prior to the ceremony, I saw Lale at work for the first time. Diplomatic, but forceful – being an educated member of the Kara tribe and having been personally affected by the practice of “mingi” through the killing at birth of his two elder sisters, Lale was listened to with respect. Each king and elder was invited to speak his mind. Regional government officials spoke. Two women from the Hamar and Bane tribes who had had “mingi” children who were killed, each courageously shared their regret in front of the elders. Two of the three tribes represented at this meeting had ended the “mingi” practice in previous years, and were putting very vocal pressure on the Hamar to do the same. I was impressed by the animated finger-pointing and name-calling between the tribal leaders, but left the meeting unsure of the results.
Later at lunch the common language between me and the elders at my table was the very broken and limited Amharic with which each of us struggled affably to communicate. (I learned that in the south two wives are better than one because of shorter life expectancy and that large families are the norm, and that most of the children are not sent to school because they are needed to tend to the livestock which is so important for the survival of these pastoralist families. Girls, in particular, are rarely sent to school as educated girls are worth fewer heads of cattle at marriage.)
The meeting ended and we all returned to the children’s home for the ceremony. The kings and elders sat amiably in the ceremonial circle sharing roasted meat while simultaneously uttering responses to the blessings offered by elders from each of the three tribes. I understood not a word of what was said, but it seemed clear. The rescued children at the Omo Child home were being blessed by those who had abandoned them. Not cursed.
When the invitation came from Lale in late June for me to attend the ending “mingi” ceremony with one Hamar tribe (the largest – 21,000 strong) I was delighted to hear of this achievement and eager to participate even though it was occurring just days before I was due to leave the country for the summer. And to sweeten the pot, John Rowe invited me to join his group while he and Sebastian shot more video footage for his documentary.
This time the celebration was not in town, but off-road in Hamar country. When we arrived an ox had been slaughtered and was being roasted by Hamar men who were stripping the nearby trees to feed the fire. Hamar women were brewing coffee-bean husks in huge cauldrons which would be served later in calabash gourds as tea. Although most of the proud Hamar people were guarded in my presence, I felt pleased to be recognized and greeted by some of those I had met in Jinka at the blessing celebration in April.
Slowly the elders gathered under the shade constructed the previous day on the dry riverbed. The youth watched from the bank where I also was seated, and the women, until invited to move closer, watched from a distance. It was curious to see the kings and elders in western dress topped with colourful hats, while the married women wore skins and cowry shell belts and the young men and women wore beaded head-bands and woven loin cloths or skirts. I would have thought it would be the other way around – with the elders holding on to traditional dress.
Despite the numerous discussions and meetings leading up to the celebration, it was not clear until the very last minute that the decision by the king to end “mingi” would be accepted by the elders. The day before the celebration we were told that many of the young men were not in favour of changing tribal traditions and were not helping with the preparations. On the day itself a Hamar respected elder stood up during the meeting to disavow his support for his king’s decision. The young men sitting near me, when I asked them their views, told me they have no say – no opinion. They will follow the decision of the elders. I wondered then whether all of the preparations had been for nothing. I wondered just what power or influence the Hamar king actually had if his tribal elders will contradict him so publicly. I wondered why the Hamar woman who spoke so courageously in Jinka did not get up once again to speak. I wondered, dumbfounded, how anyone could justify a tradition which takes an innocent child’s life?
In the end, after hours of talking, berating, accusing, warning, finger-pointing – approval to end the “mingi” practice in this Hamar tribe of 21,000 was agreed, the roasted ox was eaten, blessings were offered and a lamb was slaughtered to seal the deal. I felt a few sprinkles of rain, but more did not come. Was this seen as a sign?
Comments were later made that the ceremony was not properly finalized: the slaughtered lamb was not roasted and consumed so the “mingi” practice in this tribe was not really officially ended. It remains to be seen. The king’s proclamation remains to be delivered to each household. And the other Hamar tribes remain to be convinced. But this day was nonetheless a significant step toward finally ending the “mingi” tradition.
Although an outsider and a “farenj”, I feel privileged to have witnessed this historic event in the Hamar tribe and to be able to contribute – even in a small way – to Lale’s work.
Thank you Erica for all that you have done for Omo Child!
The Omo Child Team