MIKE MUGALA, Lusaka
IT IS 09:30 hours in the morning and youths from various communities have gathered at Africa Directions recreation centre in Lusaka’s Mtendere township.
The youths pair themselves up and participate in different activities ranging from sports to drama.
As noon approaches, the number of children trooping into the recreation centre increases. From the smiles on their faces, it is evident they have fun here.
To Africa Directions executive director Mark Chilongu, nothing matters more than seeing youths happy.
Mark believes that youths and other young people must be given space to interact if they are to grow into responsible citizens.
“Youths are building blocks of national development, our aim as Africa Directions is to motivate and inspire young people regardless of their background, to discover their abilities and unlimited potential,” he says.
Brought up from a background of daily struggles, Mark is a success story and has contributed to youth development in the country.
At the age of five, his parents divorced and this meant that Mark and his mother Godfridah Chambeshi shifting from Kabulonga to Mtendere, then a developing slum in the early 80’s.
This shift was the beginning of problems for Mark as his mother had challenges to fend for him and his siblings.
“My mother was chased from Zambia Army when she got pregnant because women soldiers were not allowed to get pregnant then. Later when my parents divorced, my siblings and I lived like orphans when my father was alive,” he says.
Later, Mark left Lusaka boys Secondary School in Longacre’s area and went to Chitukuko in Mtendere because his mother could not afford to pay school fees.
He started doing odd jobs at the age of 12 to supplement his mother’s efforts of providing food for the family.
His mother was turned into a laughing stock in the community as she would shift from one house to another due to failure to pay rentals.
When he completed secondary school in 2,000, Mark could not proceed to college due lack of finances.
Though his mother wanted him to pursue civil engineering, it was difficult for Mark to have a dream career because of the harsh background.
The following year, Mark and two of his friends with the support of the royal Netherlands embassy established Africa directions, a non-profit organisation to enhance youth participation in the fight against HIV/AIDS through drama and art.
“I was stigmatised by my colleagues when I chose drama and art as a career, my own family almost rejected me because they wanted me to be a soldier. But I stayed focused and determined,” he says.
Over the years, Africa Directions has shaped a lot of youth across the country in talent identification, among them Tom Njovu and Brian Mwale, both working for Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation as a Camera person and reporter respectively.
Others are Daliso and Willz both musical artistes, Esther Phiri, a boxer and Barbara Banda a footballer in the women national team.
Africa Directions have four focus areas; sexual reproductive health and rights, governance, entrepreneurship and children’s rights.
Through his artistic career, Mark has had an opportunity to go to school and upgrade himself. He has a diploma in project management, certificate in theatre from Kuringa Institute in Berlin.
Mark also has a certificate in arts management from Brooklyn academy of music, United States of America and a certificate in theatre for learning from South Africa.
His greatest achievement was when he travelled to the United States of America and met former president George Bush in 2013.
He also played a part in the initial stages of the Zambia – USA alumni association.
Currently, he is pursuing a master’s degree in project management at Zambia Centre for Accountancy Studies (ZCAS) University.
Mark has also travelled to Uganda, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Swaziland, Senegal, Ethiopia and Ireland for arts festivals and exchange programmes.
He is also the secretary general of the Zambia Popular theatre alliance, an affiliate organisation of the National Arts Council.
Africa Directions has been in existence for 18 years and it has grown from one centre in Mtendere to three centres across the country.
The organisation is sustained through fundraising ventures and support from donors and co-operating partners.
Among the partners are the US embassy, Ministry of Youth and Child Development, Plan Zambia and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
Mark says he hopes to grow Africa Directions and register its presence in the region and contribute to peace building in conflict countries.
He says there is fertile ground for the arts in the country and artistes to sustain a livelihood.
Mark says there is need for proper management of the arts and implementation of policies that favour the sector.
He says there is also need for artistes to attain education to avoid exploitation. Marks say arts can contribute greatly to country’s gross domestic product (GDP) if well harnessed.
He has advised young people to persevere in whatever they do if they are to succeed in their endeavours.
“Whatever experiences we go through, we are designed to inspire other people and make us even stronger,” Mark says.