By Vanessa Papas: Heart-breaking photos of a two-year-old clinging to life – found starving and roaming naked in the streets – put a face on the plight of thousands of babies and children branded ‘witches’ and living in fear in Nigeria. Branded as ‘evil’ by preachers and other members of his community the toddler was abandoned by his family because they thought he was a witch. For months he survived on nothing but scraps of rotting food thrown to him by passerbys. When Danish humanitarian worker Anja Ringgren Loven found him, the little boy was on death’s door. He was disorientated, his ribs were poking through his skin and his tummy was swollen, riddled with worms.
“When we first entered the village I looked over my shoulders and slowly turned around to see a boy sitting on the side of the road. I thought I was going to see a bigger boy but when I saw he was the size of a little baby, my whole body froze,” says Anja. “We were told he had been fending for himself on the streets for eight months. I wrapped him in a blanket and rushed him to the nearest hospital where he had to undergo a life-saving blood transfusion. Hoping for a miracle, named the boy Hope. After two days, Hope’s condition was stable. He was eating and reacting positively to the medication. It wasn’t long before he was able to go home with me.”
Anja’s quest to help save ‘witch’ children started in 2011 when she left her job as a store manager in her homeland of Denmark, sold everything she owned and travelled to Africa. For three months she volunteered as a relief worker for DanChurchAid – a Danish humanitarian group that has been working in Africa since the ’60s, fighting hunger and poverty, HIV and AIDS, Democratisation, Women’s rights and Humanitarian mine action. During Anja’s work she saw first-hand how children were being abused, neglected, tortured and killed because of superstition beliefs. She started working in Nigeria and founded the African Children’s Aid Education and Development Foundation (ACAEDF). Later she established the orphanage DINNoedjaelp. The orphanage provides medical care, food and schooling for children labelled witches – accused of killing relatives, casting spells (delivering death, illness, unemployment, pregnancy, debt, or simply bad luck) and being demon possessed.
In addition to Hope, some of the other 30 plus children DINNoedjaelp has helped include Glory, Savior, Prince and Nsikak. Glory was found in an abandoned house in July, 2013. She had been tortured by her own family who accused her of being a witch. Savior, nine, and his little brother Samuel were rescued from their abusive granny. Their younger brother didn’t survive the torture they were all exposed to. Prince, nine, and Nsikak, 15, were both accused of being witches by their fathers. Nsikak’s dad tortured him for three days, starving him and binding his hands and feet so tightly he will always have scars.
“When a child is accused of witchcraft, the accusation often come from either an uncle, grandmother, stepmother, father, neighbours, people from the village and the priest. Actually it´s very rare they are accused by their own parents. But once a child has been accused of being a witch, there is no turning back,” explains Anja. “Villagers will require the child to either be exorcised from the so-called evil spirits through nightly exorcism rituals by the local priest. Or the parents take the child to a witch doctor, who they believe has magical powers to exorcise the witch from the child. But this costs a lot of money and superstition is most common in the poorest areas. The children are often tortured and killed either by being beheaded, buried alive, burned alive or simply beaten/tortured to death.”
Although the beliefs in witches, black magic and sorcery do not exist only in Africa, the superstition is particularly prevalent in Nigeria. “Where you find extreme poverty, you will also find extreme ignorance,” says Anja. “Poverty means that children do not attend school and as a result no progress is being made. Right now, Nigeria is the African country with the most children out of school. When the Nigerian government does not use agents to inform and educate, we must through our educational work try to stop the superstition.”
While children are removed from the abuse, DINNoedhjaelp encourages them to see their families. “It is our biggest responsibility that the children maintain contact with their families.,” says Anja. “Sometimes we take the children to what we call ‘home visits’, and this is something the children look forward to. Home visits is the most important part in our advocacy programme. When children, who were previously accused of being witches come back to their family and village again and look healthy, strong, speak good English, have gotten their confidence and hope back, that gives the whole village something to think about. They realise their own ignorance and that the children are not actually witches and that the ones who accused them of being witches have been indoctrinated by either the pastor or other villagers.”
Hope’s story – and the ‘guardian angel’ care worker who saved him – has inspired people worldwide. A series of photos taken of him that went viral when he was found in late 2015 have been showcased on social media alongside recent photos of a now happy and healthy little boy. Hope has become a beacon of light for other ‘witch’ children in Nigeria who have suffered the same abandonment and torture. His story is helping spread awareness across communities that children are to be treasured and reinforcing the inspirational belief that ‘where there is love there is hope’.