Global Citizen: Anja Ringgren Lovén
“As a little girl I dreamt about life in an African village and to be able to play with the African children…I grew up with a dream to make a difference in Africa one day”
In 2017, an audience at Cannes Film Festival was enthralled by the screening of I Am Not a Witch, the debut film by Zambian-Welsh Rungano Nyoni, whose work offers a slightly comedic but highly poignant and insightful glimpse into the life of witch-believing communities in Africa. The making of I Am Not a Witch followed Nyoni’s visits to witch camps in Ghana and Zambia, where individuals accused of witchcraft — typically women and children — are housed usually as a protective measure but also, as seen in I Am Not a Witch, as a tourist-attracting, money-making endeavor.
In its review of Nyoni’s film, Variety magazine writes: “In places where life is hard, and education patchy at best, mere coincidence can seem like a curse,” especially when related to death and illness in the family, harvest failure, layoffs, or infertility. And this, perhaps, is what underscores persistent belief in witchcraft in some African countries. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, to date, almost 50,000 children have been accused of being witches, leading to their families’ rejecting them, and in some instances burning or burying them alive. In Nigeria, this figure is at roughly 10,000 per year.
On 30 January 2016, Nigeria-based Danish aid worker Anja Ringgren Lovén embarked on a rescue mission and came across one such case: a two-year-old destitute boy who had been wandering the streets of Nigeria alone after his parents, convinced that he was a witch, left him on the street to die. An image of Anja offering the emaciated boy some food and drink made international headlines, raising necessary awareness of the plight of accused children. After rescuing the boy and housing him at the orphanage Anja runs with her Nigerian husband David, the boy was named Hope (which is tattooed on her knuckles to represent ‘help one person every day’), received medical attention (going on to make astounding progress), and started kindergarten. For her efforts, Anja was named 2016’s Most Inspiring Person of the Year by German publication Ooom, with her fellow top-five company being the likes of former US President Barack Obama, Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron, His Holiness Pope Francis, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
According to Anja: “Belief in magic was almost universal in the past. Almost all cultures believed that you could use supernatural means to help with hunting or to make one’s crops grow better or to make humans or animals more fertile. Magic could also be used to heal the sick. For the great majority of people who lived before the 18th century, magic was an ordinary part of everyday life.” While Europe and most of the Western world shrugged off this belief in magic, parts of Africa held on, with theorists arguing that poverty and dire economic conditions act as a fertilizer of sorts.
Anja concurs, citing that extreme poverty limits access to education. “This is why my team and I carry out a lot of advocacy work in the local communities…We need to help villagers and change their mindset. We need to enlighten them through advocacy programs so that the killing of innocent children can stop…Education is the strongest weapon in the fight against superstition.”
We need to help villagers and change their mindset. We need to enlighten them through advocacy programs so that the killing of innocent children can stop
When talking about her team, Anja is referring to the almost 30 Nigeria- and Denmark-based individuals who support the work of her NGO, DINNødhjælp, which runs the Land of Hope care center — the largest such center in Nigeria, currently housing 67 children between the ages of two and eighteen. The DINNødhjælp team implements a carefully developed creative pro- gram to facilitate trauma counselling and support psychosocial development, and also runs community awareness programs.
Anja says: “From a very young age I developed a very strong fascination about making an impact in the society. My mom worked in an elderly home and she always told me about equality and human rights. My biggest interest was the children of Africa. As a little girl I dreamt about life in an African village and to be able to play with the African children…I grew up with a dream to make a difference in Africa one day.” The death of her mother, whom Anja describes as being “the center of my life”, when Anja was 23 years old, had a crippling effect on Anja, who struggled deeply with the loss. It took her several years to reconfigure her world without her mom, but in 2011 she decided that she had to fulfill her childhood determination of making a difference in Africa as an ode to her mother. Anja joined aid organizations in Malawi and Tanzania, and after two years she went on to establish DINNødhjælp.
Since then, the organization has extended its reach and now proudly boasts having helped hundreds of children. In addition to the care center, DINNødhjælp has built and runs a children’s hospital, a vocational and entrepreneur center, and a volunteer’s building. There is also a volleyball court and a football field, as physical activity is an important part of the child development program, as well as a large garden and snail farm (currently home to almost 4,000 gastropods) — highlighting the holistic approach that DINNødhjælp adopts to rehabilitate and nurture the most vulnerable members of Nigeria’s community.
While acknowledging their progress and achievements to date, Anja is quick to remind us that there is more work to be done. In 2017, His Holiness the Dalai Lama personally invited Anja to his home in Dharamsala, India, where he praised her work and shared that she was one of his heroes. Anja still struggles to believe that this really happened but says that the meeting was “very special”.
When a person of as much influence and global significance as His Holiness speaks so admirably, it is incumbent upon us, the global community, to pay attention to the cause at hand and join its efforts to resolve it. While Anja has numerous traits that make her stand out, one of them is her non-judgmental approach to interacting with witch-believing communities in Nigeria. While many have scoffed, and continue to scoff, at the idea of this, Anja believes that “it is important to understand superstition and to know about Nigeria before anyone can approach such a challenge”. And indeed, Anja has committed herself to truly understanding the people of Nigeria and how best she can help them, which explains why DINNødhjælp has made its life-saving gains.