Anja Lovén, LAND OF HOPE, Nigeria
Anja Ringgren Lovén is the founder of Land of Hope, a Danish aid organisation that is leading the fight to save the thousands of children being accused of witchcraft every year in Nigeria.www.landofhope.com
Anja’s face became recognisable worldwide when a photo of her with a malnourished Nigerian “witch” child went viral on social media in 2016. In the photo, Anja gave the boy some crackers and water, which he drank carefully, took him gently up in her arms, and went to the hospital. Anja did not think that he would survive.
“When we got him in the car, I looked at my husband and told him we should name him Hope,” she said. “I didn’t want him to die without a name. I wanted him to die with dignity. To me, Hope stands for Help One Person Every-day.”
Hope survived and now lives with 70+ other lovely children at Land of Hope, a loving home for so-called “witch children” who have been abandoned due to fear of witchcraft. The children’s centre sits on three acres in Southeast Nigeria and is run by Anja and her husband, David. Here, children receive love, care, room and board, and education. It’s a home-like setting that for the children is like growing up in a very large family.
Lisbeth: Anja, welcome, and thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview for WOMEN FOR HUMANITY. You are a very busy woman and a great inspiration for all of us. I'm very happy and honored to count you as part of our change-makers.
Lisbeth: Please tell us about your meeting with David and the ngo, ACAEDF, you created together? What is your mission?
Anja: In the end of 2011, about a year before I met David I established a Danish ngo called DINNødhjælp, today renamed Land of Hope.
I met David in the beginning of 2013 when I travelled to Nigeria for the first time. David and I established ACAEDF together, a Nigerian ngo and today we have build the biggest children center in Westafrica, also named Land of Hope as my ngo. We have rescued more than 100 children and today 76 children are living at our children center Land of Hope in Nigeria.
Children’s rights are at the core of everything we do. To ensure that every child’s life is characterised by love, safety, education and a bright future, it is necessary to bring progress and enlightenment to superstitious communities.
David, I and our team use a lot of our time developing advocacy campaigns in the rual areas. We believe that it´s our responsibility to meet the villagers and create a platform of trust and understanding. We have been very active in implementing our advocacy strategies in the local communities for almost a decade and it has made a huge impact in some of the local areas. Before, some of these areas were very hostile and known for killing a lot of children because of superstition, but due to our presence and advocacy work these areas are now more tolerance. We need to help these villagers and change their mindset.
The superstition only thrives in the communities where ignorance and extreme poverty are found, so we need to educate the villagers. Our work strongly promote the importance of education. We have a huge responsibility to the community by showing that we are present, but also that we hold them accountable to train and develop themselves and make the community a safe environment for the children.
Lisbeth: Can you please tell us about your vision for Land of Hope?
Anja: We save innocent children, accused of witchcraft, from exclusion, torture and death. With care, protection and education for the children and by educating their surrounding communities, we lay the foundation for a future, where children grow up to be independent, active and social individuals who contribute to the development of their community.
What we do is about so much more than saving Nigeria’s witch children. It’s about strengthening the position of small communities in the face of a neglecting government. It’s about bringing education to some of the poorest communities in the world.
Lisbeth: Can you describe the children that you’re rescuing and how do these children, who have gone through so many difficulties, learn to trust and love again?
Anja: When children are being rejected by family members and left for death they experience different degrees of trauma. As children they feel unprotected and struggle to trust again.
Some children need a lot of time before they learn to trust and for others it only takes a few days. At Land of Hope we have a very professional, caring and educated team that are ready to welcome the children we rescue and the children will then embark on a personal development surrounded by love, care and protection.
After a rescue, our children are accessed and enrolled in the school based on their cognitive ability and are also given special attention by our team of education officers to identify their academic problems, and as well as identify their inborn talents which can be transformed to skills as they grow.
School education and skill acquistion is crucial for children´s development, both mental, physical and social.
The best way to secure our children for the future is through quality education based not only on the conventional education of reading and writing, but also on vocational and skills education where our children learn and perfect relevant skills along with going to school.
At Land of Hope we have build an ICT center where the children learn different skills such as artwork, computer training, music and singing classes, cooking classes, poetry performance, debate competitions, sewing and design studies and lots of sports activities. When children´s rights are protected and when children are living in an environment free to play without any fear, to be educated and to use their imaginations, when they are being loved and cared for, even the worst traumas can be healed.
I think that it is very important to raise a child to be independent from a very young age. Children also need a lot of love. We cannot give enough love. And at the same time they need to gain self-confidence. With love comes good morals and compassion. With independence comes self-confidence and pride. Together it creates the most ideal platform of philanthropic dreams.
I have always said that it is such a privilege to witness the incredible transformations of all our children. From being left alone to die on the streets and to see how they develop into strong, healthy, independent, loving and caring children is what makes our work so important and beautiful.
Lisbeth: How does a rescue-mission look like and how do the local authorities ( village chiefs ) reacts? And how do you get to know about the children in need?
Anja: Through our advocacy work we establish a bond with the local villagers. Some of them end up becoming our local ambassadors. We also establish strong relations with the local village chiefs and paramount rulers. As leaders in the communities it is important for us to work with them, and they are often the ones that call us if they see or hear about children accused of being witches and ask us to come and take the children.
We have been present in many local areas now for almost a decade so it is very rare that we are called for a rescue in an area where we don´t have any relations. We are always very well prepared for any rescue mission and when I´m in Nigeria I have two armed policeguards to protect me all the time.
Lisbeth: How many children are you housing at Land of Hope and how does a normal day look like? Until which age can they stay at the home? And where do they move afterwards?
Anja: We have 77 children living at Land of Hope at the moment. All our children are under our legal guardiance and they can stay with us for as long as they need us. Every month we take the children for home visits. Home visits are a part of our reconciliation and reintegration process and has a huge impact on our fight against superstition.
It is very important to keep a connect between the children and their families. When the local villagers see the incredible transformation of the children they change their mindset and realize that the children are not witches. Seeing the transformation of the children, children they once rejected and thought were witches, also undermines the level of scam and brainwashing done to their parents and family members by religious leaders and the so-called witch doctors.
It might also come as a surprise to many to hear that the children actually miss their parents and family members. Children are born with the gift to forgive. No matter how much you hurt a child he or she understands that there will be no peace without forgiveness.
Home visits are often very emotionel. The children bring gifts to give to their siblings. These gifts are not gifts we go out and buy. Sometimes we are surprised to see what the children bring. It is often their own favorite clothing they will share with their siblings or biscuits and sweets they have saved just for home visits. To sacrifice something so precious to the children is a demonstration of pure selflessness. Something we all can learn from.
Lisbeth: You have had a lot of challenges in building and running Land of Hope. Can you outline one tough experience that has marked you more than others? And how did you deal with it?
Anja: I don´t even know where to begin. I have faced a lot of challenges through the years. One time I was taken by Nigerian immigrations officers to their headquarters where they took my passport and tried to bribe me for money. I was 30 weeks pregnant at the time. David was there with me and we were held for hours before we got “released”. All they wanted was money.
Human rights are violated every day in Nigeria and the government is very corrupt. David once told me, that in Nigeria “only the strongest survive”.
Lisbeth: I imagine that you also have had a lot of happy and rewarding moments. What has been your happiest moment so far?
Anja: From being tortured, abandoned, scared, lonely and having the feeling of being not worthy of love, and then to transform into a number one student full of self-esteem with a purpose in life, is like being a witness to a miracle.
These miracles only happens when you give as much energy to your dreams as you do to your fears. These transformations of the children are my happiest moments.
Lisbeth: Do you have a motto that guides you through good and bad times?
Anja: On my fingers I have the name HOPE tattoed. To me it stands for: Help One Person Everyday and that is my motto that guides me.
It is only when the child in a very remote village with no degrees, no rich family connections, no financial influence, have access to education, health care and social protection that we can rest our minds.
Lisbeth: You are a strong person and a great inspiration for others. Who is the person that inspires you most?
Anja: My mom.
Lisbeth: In 2017, His Holiness the Dalai Lama personally invited you to his home in Dharamsala, India. How did this meeting influenced you?
Anja: I asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama many questions but one question and his answer has influenced me a lot. Personally I find it very difficult to forgive and I want to learn how to forgive. His Holiness told me that anger is like cancer. If we let anger control our mind it will kill us. We need to let it go to be free.
He gave me many good advices and meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama together with my son is a memory I will cherish for life.
Lisbeth: How do you see the future for Land of Hope and the children?
Anja: We will continue our advocacy campaigns to stop the killing of innocent children by radicating the societies superstitious beliefs by implementing sound and qualitative education in the local villages. We want to promote laws and holistic implement the child rights act. We want to build schools and renovate schools in the local communities, and provide the schools with books and materials needed to give the children a qualitative education.
Anja’s work with so-called “witch children” in Nigeria has led to worldwide recognition. Including the following awards and honors:
Lifeguard Prize, 2018
Hope Award, 2017
Ooom Magazine’s World's Most Inspiring Person, 2016
The Niels Ebbesen Medal, 2016
Volunteer of the Year - The Children's Town Prize, 2016
Paul Harris Fellow Medal, 2017.
You can learn more about Anja in her book, “Heksebørnenes mor”. The book is currently available in Danish, with other language versions expected soon. Anja is also the subject of several Danish documentaries, including Anja & the Witch Children, which was shown internationally in English and Danish on National Geographic. A second international documentary, Anja & the Witch Trial was released in 2018.
You do a lot of great things for others, please let us know, what we can do for you?
Anja: For us to continue our work we need all the support we can get. Donations can be made through my website: www.landofhope.global
Lisbeth: Thank you so much for sharing your incredible and fascinating story with us , Anja. You're truly a change-maker. I admire your engagement in children's wellfare and the fight against superstition in such a challenging country as Nigeria.
You are a great inspiration for all of us and we wish you, David, David Jr. and all your staff and children in Land of Hope all the best for the future.