Editor’s Note – My body was filled with goosebumps and my eyes with tears as I looked straight into the eyes of the many children on Anja Ringgren Lovén’s instagram page last week. She is giving them love, hope, and faith in the future against all odds. I have been greatly inspired by Anja to look beyond my own needs and open my heart and soul to helping others more than I have ever done. I hope she inspires you too.
Anja Ringgren Lovén is the co-founder of African Children’s Aid Education and Development Foundation, a charity institution set up to cater for African children who are abandoned, alone and tortured.
She became well known in Nigeria following the story of Hope; the little boy who was labelled a witch and abandoned by his family.
She was recently named the world’s most inspiring person of 2016 by German-language Ooom Magazine, for her selfless act.
In this interview with Sola Abe for woman.ng, Anja talks about her journey to Nigeria, the abandoned children saved from the streets and her plans for the future.
Not too many people knew you until the story of Hope went viral, can you tell us about yourself?
My name is Anja Ringgren Lovén, born and raised in Denmark. I grew up in a caring family surrounded by love and protection. My mom worked in an elderly home and she always told me that hopefully, all humans grow old and live a long life and it´s important to take care of people in need.
My mom gave me all the tools of the importance of taking care of people in need and she often told me about African children who were starving. So from a very young age, I developed a very strong fascination about African children and my whole life, I had a dream to someday help the vulnerable children and make a difference in Africa.
My mom died of cancer when I was only 23 years old and since she died I have been struggling to try to find peace of mind. Losing her was very difficult and I needed to find meaning with my life. So I decided to follow my dreams and after working as an aid worker in Malawi and in Tanzania I established my own Danish NGO in 2012 called ”DINNødhjælp”. During my stay in Malawi and in Tanzania, I experienced poverty and hunger so extreme that I in no way was able to forget it again.
Tell us about your NGO, African Children’s Aid Education and Development Foundation and your role
I’m the co-founder of ACAEDF and David is the executive director of ACAEDF.
When I came to Nigeria for the first time in the beginning of 2013, I met David. He was working as a legal adviser and we became very close. I was very fascinated by him. Every day I saw how he was risking his own life to save children accused of witchcraft in the Niger Delta Region. He had so much passion and he was so active in the child’s rights and we shared the same ideas and visions. So, one year after we met we decided to create a safe environment for the vulnerable children of Akwa Ibom state and give them hope and a better future. So we established a children centre. Most importantly we wanted to give them a chance to go to school. We believe that education is the strongest weapon against ignorance and poverty.
In your recent interview with Bold Magazine, you spoke of your love for African children, why did you choose to come to Nigeria when you could have gone to other African countries and why are you settled in Akwa-Ibom state?
This is a question that I have been asked by a lot of people. When I decided to travel alone to Nigeria to support children accused of witchcraft, I began to read articles online to know more about Nigeria. And in every article, I found it was written that Nigeria was a very dangerous and very corrupt country. And I also read articles online that portrayed the Niger Delta Region as a very dangerous place to travel to for the western people due to a lot of kidnappings and crime activities etc.
So many people, including my family, did not want me to travel to Nigeria. Furthermore, I was travelling alone and I was a woman with blond hair and blue eyes, so when I look back I understand why so many people were worried about my safety.
But I actually discovered myself that the Niger Delta region is not as dangerous as the media portrayed it then. Akwa Ibom state for instance is very peaceful with the very low crime rate. This is because of the effort of the state governor who is working hard to bring criminality to zero. I believe that if you want to reach your goals in life you need to work hard. Hard work, determination and the will to make sacrifices can get you anywhere. It’s all about making sacrifices. And I was willing to sacrifice my life to help children accused of witchcraft.
When I found out that so many innocent children in the Niger Delta Region were tortured and killed due to superstition and the belief in witchcraft, I was in total shock. It really made me so sick to my bones. How could anyone do this to children?
So I was determined to find out and that is why no one could stop me from travelling to Nigeria. These children needed help and support. And then when I met David, it all just went up to a higher level. He was such an inspiration. He really showed me what determination is all about. And together we created a strong team who shared our dreams and visions. Who wanted to join our mission in saving the vulnerable children. David and our staff at our children center are truly the real heroes. Every day I learn from them. I’m so inspired by the way they work with our children. They turn our children into strong individuals and through love, care and education; they really give them the best tools in life.
Can you tell us more about the project, ‘Land of Hope’ that you are working on?
Last year David and I bought a very big piece of land in Nigeria where we currently are building a new Children’s Center in collaboration with Engineers Without Borders Denmark.
“Land of Hope” is the name of our new land which is also written above our main gate.
These are the buildings we are building right now and we are almost there: Girls hostel; Boys hostel; Office building; Security/generator house; Kitchen building; Health Clinic; Vocational and Entrepreneur building; Library; Parliamentary Hall; Volunteer house.
So, in the future we are not only going to run a children’s center but also a health clinic and educational center. Apart from having our health clinic which is primarily for our children, it will also be freely accessed by abused children who need medical attention. It will also be used by local community members. We believe that we as an international NGO have power and therefore a huge responsibility to provide the whole community with our assistance so we can build a strong and safe environment for everyone.
Our Vocational and Entrepreneur building will house different skill acquisition like musical laboratory for learning musical instruments and music. Also, an ICT center for computer training which is very rare in the environment in which we operate.
These are the varieties of department and skills that the building will be used for. This is basically to duly equip our children for better productivity and proper integration into the society. All our children and many more kids will have access.
Education provides the children with knowledge about the world. It paves the way for a good career. It helps build character. It leads to enlightenment. It lays the foundation of a stronger nation. And the Vocational and Entrepreneur building will play a very important role in our advocacy work.
What are the challenges you face in achieving your goals?
We face a lot of challenges, but challenges also make us stronger. It’s important to have a positive mind and to practice patience. Challenges can be everything from the current financial crisis in Nigeria where the prices of food and materials has gone sky
Even the rainy seasons in Nigeria give us challenges. And we also face a lot of challenges when we do advocacy in the local communities because the ignorance is so extreme. We face so many challenges as the rest of the Nigerians do every day. We as an NGO don´t grow when things are easy. We grow when we face challenges.
Can you share with us your happiest and saddest moments doing your job?
The happiest moments for me are when I see the incredible transformation that our children are going through. From the day we rescue a child to the day that same child becomes number one in his or her class is truly an amazing journey. From being an outcast, abandoned on the street, feeling lonely and scared to being number one in your class and full of self-esteem with a purpose in life is like being a witness to a miracle.
These miracles only happen when you give as much energy to your dreams as you do to your fears. David and our staff are giving our children so much love, care and strength that the children dare to reach their dreams. To see how David and our staff work with the children is really amazing. The happiest moments is really when David and our staff turn our children into strong individuals. I wish the whole world could see what I see then everyone would believe in miracles.
How supportive has the Nigerian government been since the news of Hope went viral?
All over the world, government cannot do everything. It will be right to ask me “how have we supported the effort of the government since the story of Hope went viral?”
The fact is that the story of Hope opened our eyes to the fact that there is work enough to do to complement the effort of the government, if we have to pull Nigerians from this terrifying level of ignorance. We have supported the effort of the government by constant advocating that people should protect the right of every child. We are also supporting the effort of the government by giving the children in our home a good sound and qualitative education. Because it is the key to open the doors of awareness.
Photo Credits – instagram.com/dinnoedhjaelp