I have thought of their mesmerizing faces all week. Go to www.omochild.org to be enchanted yourself. Five-year-old Terefe has the same devilish grin as my own son. When I first read his description, I thought: This is my son's soul brother. Terefe, the jokester, often pinches the other kids to make them laugh. (My own dear son struggles to sort out what's truly hilarious slapstick comedy from what's just annoying.) Two-year-old Ruth, whose name is my daughter's middle name, can be both sneaky and clever. She hides her own bottle, saves it for later, and then steals one from another kid. Her nickname is the "Adorable Cheater." We often say that our own daughter gets away with an awful lot because of her charm.
These children -- pulling pranks in a home nearly 7,000 miles away from ours -- are our kin. Yet they are among the 37 children rescued by Lale Labuko's nonprofit, "Omo Child," and living in two shelter homes in Jinka, Ethopia. Their savior, Labuko, now attends Hampshire College in western Massachusetts.
Lale Labuko thinks he's about 30 years old, although he can't be sure. He was born in a Kara village in the remote Omo River Valley in southwest Ethiopia and lived among a people who still adhere to ancient beliefs about ritualistic killing of children to ward off evil. Labuko resolved at the age of 15 that he would end this repulsive practice. Although he's saved numerous children, he has not yet succeeded in persuading village elders to entirely abandon their deadly superstition.
It would be rather effortless to disdain the Kara and reject them as so very different from us -- to mark them as "other" -- because we can't comprehend a world view that includes ritual killing of children. Several groups in this extremely isolated region of Ethiopia believe that some people are born "mingi" -- cursed -- and must be killed to spare the rest of the village from suffering. If a child is born without the permission of the village elders, is born out of wedlock, or is a twin, then elders demand that you abandon the child in the bush to die. If your toddler's top teeth grow in before the bottom teeth, you will be forced to kill your child to save the village from impending bad luck: Famine, drought or disease will surely be brought down on others if you don't destroy the curse.
Although it is both incomprehensible and revolting that a superstition about drought could precipitate a child's murder, it is commonplace in our own society to believe in bad luck. We employ all sorts of talismans, rituals, and charms to ward off lurking malevolence -- or just prevent bad penalty kicks and free throws. Numerous studies have shown that modern, Western humans tenaciously cling to magical thinking.
University of Cologne professors Lysann Damisch, Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler designed and implemented a group of experiments to determine if people felt more confident -- and thus performed better -- when allowed to hold "good luck" charms. Their study -- published in "Psychological Science" -- showed that participants who had charms with them reported more confidence, and subsequently had more success at a memory task. They also set higher goals for themselves than those whose talismans were taken away. Magical thinking about a particular object in their possession made them feel more competent and self-assured.
Wearing socks inside out, eating certain foods, participating in a proscribed team cheer, or wearing a lucky shirt under the official team uniform are part of a very long list of "magic charms" employed regularly by athletes to "improve" their performance. In a set of Canadian studies of athletes by Hans Buhrmann and Maxwell Zaugg, researchers discovered that 86 percent of male athletes and 90 percent of female athletes surveyed adhered to the belief that their "lucky" clothes contributed greatly to their success. Buhrmann and Zaugg also determined that success appears to breed more superstition: Starters on a team were more superstitious than bench sitters, and winning teams were more superstitious than losing ones.
It's not just athletes who believe in "good luck" charms. Writing in The Atlantic, Connecticut College professor Stuart Vyse cites studies regarding the magical thinking used by college students when facing exams. Like athletes, many students believe wearing certain clothes helps them think, and some believe using a "lucky" pen is a critical exam preparation component. Vyse tells of one panicked student who even placed an ad in a campus newspaper: "Help! I've lost my silver Cross pen. Deep psychological and sentimental value; never written an exam without it ... If found, contact Anna ..."
I routinely kiss my hand and then touch the ceiling of my car whenever going through a yellow light (when perhaps it would be best to keep both hands firmly affixed to the wheel); clearly, I am not inured to magical thinking. Two master's degrees in hand, I know it is utterly ridiculous to cling to this ritual, but I do it anyway. I suppose life's challenging enough that we all feel that we could use "an edge" whenever and wherever we can get one.
But the stakes are not high in my magical thinking; my children are not in imminent danger, which is why Labuko and the children of the Omo River Valley need my money and not my judgment. Labuko uses every ounce of his own prodigious charm -- the personality kind -- to convince village elders to give him the "mingi" children so that they can live far from the village. But once he's rescued them, he needs the resources to keep them safe and comfortable. Next time you practice magical thinking -- clutching a charm, crossing your fingers, or knocking on wood -- make a donation to Omo Child. Turn your superstition into real providence for those treasured children.