When Maria Grette, 62, first discovered that the 58-year-old Danish man with whom she had fallen in love was actually a 24-year-old Nigerian 419 internet scammer, she was distraught. But, soon, her feelings changed.
Ms Grette, who works as an arts teacher, painter and arts therapist, met Johnny (not his real name) on a dating site. He described himself as a Dane. After three months of communicating, the man agreed to come over and visit her in Sweden.
But before that, he and his son needed to make a quick trip to Nigeria for a job interview. The next phone call was to tell her that he was in a Lagos hospital. They had been mugged, his son shot in the head, and they were without money.
Meanwhile, the hospital management was requesting €1000 to proceed with treatment. Grette gave him the money. She sent several thousands of euro later, until she realised that something was amiss. She stopped responding to his messages.
Three weeks after her silence, he called her and confessed. In October 2009, Grette travelled to Abuja to meet him and changed their romance into good friendship. She described her two weeks in Nigeria as blissful. She met his friends, many of whom were also scammers.
It was while enjoying their company one night that she began to wonder how she could make a difference. An idea came to her two years later, in 2011, after she saw an article on a Nigerian news website about an arts exhibition.
Over the past 6 years, Grette has arranged for a number of African artists to visit Europe for arts exhibitions, workshops, conferences and competitions. She has assisted them to source international grants and other funding to advance their work.
“Johnny has given me more than he took. Without him, I wouldn’t have met Africa,” she said. Johnny promised her that he’d give up scamming. With her assistance, he left Nigeria shortly afterwards, to study in U.S.
She continued to provide him with financial assistance until he completed his degree and got a job in the U.S oil sector. Last year, he bought one of her paintings which she shipped over to him.