At 4 years old, Bargi still wasn’t walking. She’d been ill with a cough since birth. A traditional healer suggested that, as a toddler, Bargi must have crawled over a pregnant snake, causing the snake to miscarry.
Her parents, Keo and Meilo, wondered if she was mingi—cursed.
Banna tribal beliefs gave strict orders on how to deal with cursed people. If the sickness didn’t kill Bargi, her family would have to do it.
That was before Almaz Gunzar heard about Bargi. The Bible storyteller and former health care worker walked the dusty road through her Ethiopian town of Key Afer, up the mountain path to the family’s house. Keo told her they had no more money to spend on treating her daughter.
“Don’t worry, I don’t want any money,” Almaz told them. “I’ll pray for the girl in the name of Jesus.”
Keo welcomed the offer. The two women sat together as Almaz held the child, sang, and prayed.
Within a few days, Bargi’s cough disappeared. Before long, she was walking.
Saved from a Ritual of Death
Mingi is a taboo rarely discussed aloud among Omo Valley tribes, including the Hamer (also spelled Hamar), Banna, and Kara people. A child is considered cursed if born out of wedlock or disabled, or if the top teeth come in before the bottom teeth. If twins are born, one or both may be considered cursed. Village elders determine when a child should be “put out.” Children are left in the bush, their mouths filled with dirt. Or they’re starved or drowned in the river.
Though infanticide was outlawed by the Kara tribe in 2012, many in the Hamer and Banna tribes still practice the traditional belief. Social pressure is born out of fear that the cursed child will bring drought, famine, or disease.
But in an area long marked by this ritual of death, where fewer than 2% of the population follow Christ, God’s Word in the heart language is bringing hope and life.
How Almaz Gave Her Life to Christ
Almaz began sharing the gospel during home visits as a government health worker years ago, teaching women about pregnancy, childcare, sanitation, family planning, and other concerns.
She remembers meeting missionaries living among the Banna people─her people.
These people are passionate about the spiritual lives of the people whom they don’t know, she thought. I am the only one in my family who finished my education. I know my people. Why don’t I serve them this way?
Almaz’s late father was the first Christian in Key Afer, led to Christ by the missionaries. The seventh of nine children, Almaz grew up knowing about Jesus. But she didn’t see faith outside of her own family until she worked with other Christians for the government health service. They were lively people, deeply committed to Christ. She wanted to be like them.
“I believed in God, but I hadn‘t determined to live for Jesus,” Almaz says.
Over the next six years she dedicated her life’s work to God. Later, she resigned from her government position and began working full time in women’s ministry at the local church.
“First, God changed my life and grew my faith,” she says. “Now, God is doing something new for the Banna people.”
God’s Word Is Finding a Way
When an opportunity arose to learn how to tell Bible stories, Almaz went to the town of Arba Minch for training. Today she travels the region, sharing Bible stories with the Banna as they plow the fields, walk on the road, shop at the market or ride the bus.
“When people hear accurate Bible stories in their own language, the ideas are clear,” she says. “They understand.”
The first thing Almaz does when she enters a community is find a man or woman of peace. She sits with those who will listen, drinks coffee with them, and shares her life story and God’s stories. “The Banna people relate especially to the themes of forgiveness, conflict, sin, and the schemes of Satan,” she says.
Though Bargi’s parents aren’t believers yet, they have opened their house as a home of peace. Almaz and others meet there regularly.
As listening groups grow, house churches sprout.
“It’s as if God has opened the skies and made the community ready to receive the good news,” she says. “When I tell stories, others are positive and open to Christianity. Many are coming to Christ, and their lives are changing. I‘m not doing a hard thing. They are God‘s stories; I just tell them. The ideas are simple to understand, and they’re learning to apply God’s truths to their lives.”
Each morning and evening, Almaz recites Psalm 91:1—”Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”
“It sustains me,” she says. “Jesus is my joy, and I belong to him. When I follow him and show others the way, I believe he is pleased.”
‘Many See God’s Power’
In Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, which is so remote that many opt to fly in by bush helicopter rather than brave the rugged two-day drive from the capital Addis Ababa, God’s Word is spreading and lighting up the darkness. The Hamer, Kara, and Banna people groups, who had been isolated from the gospel for far too long, now have the New Testament and the “JESUS” film in their languages.
“God’s Word and his Spirit are at work in tremendous ways,” Almaz says. “Often the sick go to witch doctors and end up discouraged when they don’t get better. When I pray for them in Jesus’ name, they are healed. Many see God’s power.”
Pray for God to raise up more workers like Almaz, who will carry his Word to the people of the Omo Valley, refreshing their hearts and awakening them to the gift—and, above all, the Giver—of life.
*This story was originally published in 2015. Photography by Esther Havens