The healthy infant boy's top teeth came in before his bottom teeth. For this, elders of the Kara tribe in Ethiopia's primitive Omo River region determined that the child must die.
The child was mingi—"cursed" according to superstition. With every breath, the elders believed, the boy was beckoning an evil spirit into their village. It was the sacrifice of one child for the good of the entire tribe, a rite that elders had witnessed for untold generations.
Less clear was what to do about the boy's dead twin. After some debate and an examination of goat intestines, the elders decided the dead twin must have been mingi too. They dug up the corpse, bound it to the living boy, paddled a canoe into the center of the swiftly moving Omo River, and threw them both into the cold, brown waters.
That was five years ago. Several years ago, regional officials had begun taking action—threatening prison for those complicit in mingi killings. But at best, officials are equipped to step in only after a child has been murdered. So, in the villages of southern Ethiopia, a region the size of Texas with few roads or infrastructure, a few concerned tribespeople started an orphanage for cursed children. Yet the orphanage is mired in controversy, and meanwhile, few have challenged the underlying fear of mingi.
But one small band of Christians in one tribe, along with other supportive Christians, has pledged to protect these cursed children until mingi is no more. They are determined to show tribal elders that there is something "stronger than mingi"—the power of Jesus Christ. Earlier this year, I traveled to the hard-to-reach Ethiopian river valley to hear their story.Modern-Day Child Sacrifice
Bona Shapo, a tribal elder, took me to where mingi children are being sacrificed. He steered his dugout canoe through the crocodile-infested waters of the Omo River, guiding the craft beneath a crumbling precipice near the stick-and-thatch village of Korcho. Across the river, Colobus monkeys whooped and howled, stirring Marabou storks from their perches on a stand of acacia.
"This is where they do it," says Bona, who had stood on these muddy banks the day the boys were thrown into the river.
There has been little modern research on mingi. Elders single out for death children who are born out of wedlock, have damaged genitals, or whose top baby teeth emerge before the bottom ones. Kara elders believe keeping this traditional practice is crucial to tribal survival. Allowing a mingi child to live among their people, they fear, will cause the rains to cease and the sun to grow hotter.
"If they have mingi, there will be no water, no food, no cattle," Bona says. "But when they throw the baby away, everything is good again. So yes, it is sad, but we are thinking about the village, the family, all the people."
Tribal parents tolerate the killing. After Erma Ayeli gave birth, elders took her newborn. She was not permitted to nurse him, hold him, or see him. "I think he must have been a beautiful boy," she says. "I wanted to keep him."
Her chin sinks into the colorful beads draped around her neck. Erma still grieves over her son's death—but she does not question it. "There was no other option," she says.
Sex outside of marriage is acceptable among the Kara. But if a woman becomes pregnant before participating in a marriage ceremony, as Erma did, her child is considered kumbaso—a mingi curse that occurs when parents fail to perform the appropriate rites before conceiving.