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Ethiopia's River of Death
Image: William Koechling

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.

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Ethiopia's River of Death
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In the Magazine

August 2011

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