In 2016, Danish aid worker Anja Ringgren Lovén was on a mission with her husband in Nigeria to rescue some of the thousands of children abandoned each year after being accused of witchcraft. There, Anja met a little boy who she now calls Hope. The toddler, emaciated and on the verge of collapse, was left to die in the streets by his parents. Anja posted a photo of Hope on Facebook that went viral globally: one many of us remember, with Anja offering the little boy water and taking him in her arms to a safer place.
Today, Hope lives with 67 other children in a children centre, Land of Hope, established in 2015 by Anja and her husband, David Emmanuel Umem, in Eket, Nigeria. The children center offers a home, a hospital and a vocational and entrepreneurial school for Nigeria’s thousands of so-called witch children.
Nigeria has the largest number of children in the world who are not attending school. In addition, superstition is widespread and many believe that some children are witches. These children are expelled from their villages, others tortured to death, and some even buried or burnt alive. Some, like Hope, are simply left in the streets to die.
“When we rescue children, we take care of their health and send them to school,” Anja says. “Eventually, we go on home visits with the children, who by then speak good English and look healthy, confident and strong. It makes quite an impression on the entire village who realize they were terribly wrong about the child.”
There are no official figures on the number of children being accused of being witches. But the issue is a huge one, particularly in the southern part of Nigeria. In 2009, campaigners against the witch-hunt practise reported that around 15,000 children were accused of witchcraft in two of Nigeria’s 36 states over a decade and around 1,000 had been murdered. Since then, the problem has only gotten worse.
Denmark as a refuge
Anja leaves Nigeria every four weeks to travel back to Denmark where she raises funds through various initiatives including speeches. “It’s really dangerous for me to be in Nigeria. A white person is perceived as being rich and therefore viewed as great kidnapping potential. Back home in Aarhus, I recharge my batteries. It is a very tough world I work in, but I have learnt to focus on the children I help – not the thousands I can’t help, which in the beginning just made me cry,” Anja explains.
Now, more than two years after the famous photo was taken, the five-year-old Hope is unrecognisable.
“A year after I found Hope, he was going to school,” Anja says showing us a photo of a happy little boy wearing a red jumper, white Velcro sneakers, and a black backpack, taking a sip of water from a bottle — just like he did in the original photo when he was rescued. Today, he is even the best friend of Anja’s own son, David Jr., who is four years old.
The Dalai Lama’s personal hero
The Dalai Lama calls Anja his personal hero, while the Austrian magazine Ooom named Anja the most inspiring person of the year in 2016, topping Barack Obama, Pope Francis, and the Dalai Lama himself. We certainly agree. Anja sold all her belongings in 2012 to go to Africa to work for some of the most vulnerable children in the entire world: an action definitely worth recognising.
“Where there is love there is hope,” Anja finishes, a remarkable woman who grew up in the northern part of Denmark in a city called Frederikshavn together with her mother, a twin sister and another sister ten years older than Anja.
Anja will soon star in a TV program about her children center, Land of Hope. Anja has already made four TV documentaries about her work in Nigeria.
You can learn more about and support Anja’s humanitarian non-profit organisation at dinnnoedhjaelp.dk.