Earlier this year, the image of a starving toddler receiving water from an aid worker in the streets of Nigeria went viral. The picture was useful in raising awareness about the harmful superstitions existing in the country and therefore gaining momentum in the fight against them.
The child in the picture is Hope, a baby boy who was rejected by his family and left to die because it was believed he was a ‘witch’. In Nigeria, it is not uncommon to accuse children of witchcraft and blame them when a misfortune such as a divorce or death happens. These children are often tortured, abused, and even killed.
The stigmatization of ‘witch’ children in Nigeria is a relatively recent occurrence that gained predominance in the 1990’s. The reason why children have become the target of witchcraft allegations in Nigeria is not clear. Traditionally, in numerous cultures, the subjects of witchcraft accusations have been mostly the elders, particularly elder women. This was the case in Medieval Europe, and presently, still is in India and Ghana.
Furthermore, the determined nature of beliefs in ‘witches’ is uncertain and vary across opinions and disciplines. Nevertheless, common understandings assert that a ‘witch’ is normally thought to have been ‘possessed’ by an evil spirit and demons which compels the ‘possessed’ to cause harm to family members or to the community. This understanding prevails in Nigeria.
To dig deeper, WIB spoke to Anja Lovén, the Danish aid worker in the image. Anja is the founder and director of DINNødhjælp, or African Children’s Aid Education and Development Foundation, an orphanage based in Uyo, Nigeria, providing a safe place for ‘witch’ children.
Her story starts back in 2012, when she founded DINNødhjælp, a decision she made after spending three months working in Malawi, as an observer and relief worker for DanChurchAid.
In January 2013, she started her first project in association with her organization, which consisted of supporting Nigerian children accused of witchcraft. In pursuit of her goal, she travelled alone to Nigeria, where she met children who had been tortured and beaten almost to death for being accused of being witches. What she saw made a profound impression on her.
DINNødhjælp main focus is to rescue ‘witch’ children who have been mistreated and abused, to provide these children with a home at the organization’s children’s center where they can heal and grow happy and healthy, and to provide them with access to education.
Education is particularly important for DINNødhjælp’s mission and a crucial point for the long term wellbeing of the rescued children. As Anja explains, “Education is the key in the fight against superstition. The children will be enlightened by going to school. They will learn that if you get sick with malaria, you go to the hospital and not a local witch doctor. Education gives people the skills and tools they need to navigate the world. It is crucial to the overall development of all human beings and the society at large. ”
She continues by saying that, “When a child accused of witchcraft is being educated, the status of that child will change and the superstition will disappear. Superstition only survives where you will find ignorance and extreme poverty.” As ‘witch’ children become educated the misfortune associated to them also fades because it is harder to sustain unfounded accusations against children when these are effectively integrated into society. As Anja highlights, “Education lays down the foundation of a stronger nation.”
However, ignorance is only one variable that contributes to the violence against children in Nigeria. The most populous country in Africa is struck by a myriad of issues that intersect with the latter. According to Anja, the growing corruption and the lack of respect for human lives are aggravating factors for the current situation of children in the country, in parallel with religious beliefs and extreme poverty.
She points out that, for centuries, the concept of ‘witch doctor’ has been used to describe someone who was believed to have the power of healing, through the use of magic or witchcraft. According to historians, these early physicians and the potions they created were believed to have contributed to modern medicine. In the particular case of Nigeria, the problems of ‘witch’ children arose from the alienation of traditional practices. In Akwa Ibom, where Anja’s organization operates, “The Pentecostal Christianity beliefs are mixed with local tribal religions into a deadly cocktail that involves belief in witches and exorcism. The so-called witch doctors and pastors who practice this old superstition are taking advantage of the poor village people who are not educated.” In 31% of cases, children are accused of being witches by pastors. Subsequently, these usually are paid to ‘deliver’ the child from evil, normally by means of a deliverance ritual or exorcism, which are often brutal or violent.
Other contributing factors for the belief in ‘witch’ children include family disruption and the increasing number of orphans and children living with step-families. Research shows that in 70% of cases, children accused of witchcraft are either orphans, have one parent who has died, and/or have at least one step-parent. Additionally, children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to these beliefs, as the lack of understanding about some medical conditions is often perceived as manifestations of witchcraft.
The cultural media also reflects and sustains these beliefs. Here, again, the Pentecostal church has played a major role in producing and disseminating material, such as books and movies, with content that promotes the idea of the existence of ‘witch’ children.
Moreover, the government’s indifference and inaction also contributes to the perpetuation of horrendous crimes against children. As Anja recounts, the government passed the Child Rights Act, in 2003, supposed to protect children from abuse and discrimination, as a result of pressure from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). But in practice, Anja notes, there is no implementation, “From the inception of the passing of the law nobody has been prosecuted.” Furthermore, as in 2015, only 24 out of Nigeria’s 36 states had domesticated the legislation, meaning that in the remaining states, it is yet to be effective.
The lack of support from the state poses challenges for NGOs, which depend on private donations and sponsors to sustain the humanitarian work. This is the case of Anja’s organization. Supporters from Denmark and all around the world make it possible to maintain the orphanage and all the activities, such as advocacy, rescue missions, home visits, reunifications, and many more.
Additionally, the fact that the organization’s work focuses on fighting prejudicial superstitions and witchcraft beliefs presents an additional challenge, Anja shares, “Our work is focused on superstition and the belief in witchcraft, which gives us many enemies like pastors and church members who practice this belief.”
Despite the challenges, the organization is thriving and looking forward to the conclusion of its more recent project – the new children’s center that extends over almost three hectares of land, which is called “Land of Hope”. “’Land of Hope’ will be the future land for many children where love, care and protection will be given, but most importantly, the children will have the chance to go to school and get an education that will ensure a brighter future for every one of them,” says Anja.
Such resilience and hard work is not without downsides. The emotional toll of the job is harsh, says Anja, “To see the suffering of innocent children who have been brutalized and tortured because they have been accused of witchcraft is so painful. It breaks my heart.” She relays that rescue missions are particularly hard, but especially rewarding, “Every rescue mission I have been on during the last 3 years will forever have a big impact on my life. They are some of my worst experiences, but at the same time it´s also on rescue missions where we save the lives of innocent children, so it’s worth the struggle and pain.”
Children are, indeed, Anja’s biggest motivator to keep going, “The children can lighten up my day even when days are tough. To see the incredible transformation the children go through because of the rescue missions – from almost dying in our hands to being strong, independent and brilliant students in school – is the best experience in life. To see my son play with the children who all treat him like a brother, and how they protect him and care for him is so amazing. That’s what life is all about.”
People interested in learning more about DINNødhjælp’s work and how to help can visit the organization's website here , and the FAQ section. Unfortunately, the organization cannot allow volunteers to go to Nigeria due to the high risk and safety concerns in the area where the work is carried out.