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In conversation with Anja Lovén, the founder of Land of Hope

In conversation with Anja Lovén, the founder of Land of Hope

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the privileged reality in which every one of us reading these lines is currently living. We have access to clean water, nutritious food, good education, and, most importantly, a loving family that always has our back. This isn’t the case for a major part of the population living in less-than-adequate conditions in Africa. Despite the rapidly increasing standards of living in the first world countries, the less fortunate ones still face the issues they have been dealing with for centuries.

Among others, children in Southeast Nigeria suffer in a big part – they are being called “witches”, expelled from communities, and tortured on a daily basis. The circumstances have drastically changed, however, when Anja Lovén stumbled upon a horrific documentary showcasing the harsh realities of Nigerian children, she made it her life mission to fight superstition. We got the opportunity to discuss the subject with the founder of Land of Hope with the intention of educating everyone on the ill-fated belief of Nigerians and potentially reversing the pattern that violates the basic human rights.

Anja and Hope
Anja and Hope

Anja, what is the story behind the creation of the Land of Hope?

It all started in 2008 when I watched a British documentary called “The Witch Children of Africa” and was shocked to find out that superstition was used to torture and kill innocent children. I had previously worked in Malawi and Tanzania as a humanitarian worker, so I was already familiar with this sector when I decided to put my focus on Nigeria and the so-called witchcraft accusations on innocent children.

In 2012 I established a Danish NGO whose mission was to create more awareness about superstition in Africa, and especially in Nigeria. So, at the beginning of 2013 I traveled to Nigeria for the first time. Since then I have rescued more than 100 children accused of being witches. As a result, alongside my Nigerian husband, David Emmanuel Umem, we have built the biggest children center in West Africa, called Land of Hope. We are currently taking care of 74 children at the Land of Hope. Our main focus is to provide the children with qualitative education (all of our children are receiving the necessary education at the moment) since we believe it is the strongest weapon against superstition.

David is a law graduate from the University of Uyo and for more than 10 years now he has been the leader of child rights projects in Akwa Ibom State. He has integrated a lot of advocacy programs in the local communities. As he says, “it’s our responsibility as an international organization to meet the villagers and create a platform of communication”. We are glad to report that the implementation of our advocacy strategies has made a great impact on the local communities and made the environment safer for children.

Denmark and Nigeria seem to be on the opposite spectrums in terms of standards of living. How did you make the decision to move to Nigeria? What was the adaptation process like?

Since I was born and raised in one of the worlds’ safest and richest countries, Denmark, moving to Nigeria was definitely a challenge and a learning experience. But I was willing to take on the challenge and commit to my purpose regardless of the difficulties that awaited me.

I gave birth to our first child with David named David Jr. in 2014, the year that made me a mother of a Nigerian baby. It’s already been 7 years of me living in Nigeria, so I have basically turned into a Nigerian :) . On a more serious note though, my adaptation wasn’t that hard because I had spent years in Africa working as a humanitarian worker in the past. That said, unfortunately, Nigeria remains to be a country with many problems. Corruption and violations of human rights in Nigeria are still big concerns and it will take quite some time before our combined efforts can disrupt the vicious cycle.

What you are doing is incredible. As a mother of two children, I often find myself being scared for my children. I wonder if you have any fears in regards to raising David Jr. in Nigeria and if so, how do you manage to overcome them?

To put it simply, David and I put our son´s health and safety first. For security purposes, I have armed police guards that greatly help in protecting me and my son. Without them, we wouldn’t feel nearly as safe as we do. Besides, there is simply no way I would put my family in a situation that would endanger our lives.

As a humanitarian, however, one has to remember that his or her life is always at risk. Having lived in Nigeria for 7 years, I’ve had all kinds of unpleasant experiences. We learned from them, however, and have educated ourselves on seeing the danger before it happens. It also helps to be surrounded by professionals who know what they are doing.

I would assume that there is an incredible amount of hardships that you have to overcome on a daily. How do you manage to never give up and keep fighting?

Even in times when hope seems to have been lost, I never give up. I have witnessed first-hand the horror the “witch children” had and still have to deal with, and I simply cannot just close my eyes and pretend as if it is not happening. I will go as far as to say that I will continue to fight for children’s rights until the day I die. The smiles of all my children are my greatest motivation and there is no way I will give up on them.

How do you know it is all worth it?
From the day we rescue a child to the day that same child becomes number one in his or her class is worth more than words can describe. At first being tortured, abandoned, scared, lonely, and experiencing the feeling of being not worthy of love, and then being treasured by the community that found you and becoming an example for others is the definition of a miracle by our foundation’s standards. And to know that we are able to change the lives of innocent children justifies all the struggles. This is only possible when you give as much energy to your dreams as you do to your fears.

Are there any security rules you have to abide by when rescuing a child or a family? If so, could you tell us what they are?

As one would expect, you cannot just go into the local community and take away a child. This is considered to be kidnapping. To take a child away from his or her own family, you need to have a police extract and court approval. Our job involves closely cooperating with the local police and women´s social welfare department in order to help these children without breaking the law.

For instance, when we rescue a child who is in urgent need of medical assistance, we immediately take the child to the hospital. After that, we acquire all the needed documents and report the case to law enforcement so that we are able to rescue him.

How do the lives of these kids change once they are put in a safe environment?

Once children are given love, care, security, and the opportunity to go to school, they progress rapidly and develop into strong, self-independent individuals with hope in their life. The concept is very simple – love is all they need.

Besides helping Nigerian children, is there anything else you do to educate Nigerians on the subject of superstition and witches?

We use a lot of our time to develop our advocacy work. We believe that it´s our responsibility to create an educational platform for the villagers if we want to see the change. David and our team have been very active in implementing our advocacy strategies in the local communities for more than 10 years now. I personally have already been a part of the advocacy work for 7 years and our common efforts have made a huge impact in some of the local areas. Before Land of Hope came into existence, some of those areas were very hostile and known for killing a lot of children because of superstition. One of our main priorities at the moment is to help these villagers and eradicate the wrong beliefs that are embedded in their mindset.

When we implement our advocacy work in the local communities, we create connections with the villagers. We establish a platform of trust and communication. This means that it´s the local villagers who end up calling us if they see or hear about children being tortured or killed because of superstition. The superstition only thrives in the communities where ignorance and extreme poverty are found, so we need to educate the villagers. Our work strongly promotes 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.

Children hardly have a voice – it’s up to others if they get to express themselves. This is the reason David and I created Land of Hope. To give children a voice, fight for their rights, and give them hope for a brighter future. We accomplish this by complementing the effort of the Akwa Ibom State government free and compulsory education system and empowering our children with good and qualitative education. We believe that this is the most effective tool to use and fight all forms of superstition deeply rooted in many African cultures.

Today the lives of more than hundreds of children have been saved because of our work. We have made a huge impact in many local communities and changed the mindset of many villagers through our advocacy campaigns. The rescue of Hope has made the world aware of the situation in Nigeria regarding superstition and the killing of many innocent children. We have built the biggest children center in Nigeria, “Land of Hope”, alongside the children’s hospital and a vocational center.

Do you think that being a woman brings more challenges to your work in this male-dominated society?

To our regret, awareness of women´s rights in Africa has failed because of the resistance to change. Nigeria has lived by patriarchal ideologies for centuries and I feel the repercussions of it to this day. That said, the fact that I’m a white woman and a humanitarian does give me the privilege others might not have.

I do consider myself the mother of Africa at times, even though the white part of me can cause others to try to take advantage of me. You never really know who you can trust and it does take years to find out who you can trust.

Who is the person that inspires you the most?

My mom is definitely my role model.

What is your vision for Land of Hope going forward?

I aspire to create much more awareness about superstition in Nigeria.

What’s your greatest hope for the children in danger and Nigeria?

I hope that one day children’s rights in Nigeria are respected and religion is not the dominant part of society. I believe that religion and corruption are the main reasons for the extreme poverty in Nigeria and have great hopes for contributing to its elimination.

If you want to support the children from Land of Hope you can do a donation here. Every amount counts and really makes a difference in these children’s life. Thank you for your support.

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Co-Author: Anastasia Hamurari

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