Washington — At age 30, Mark Chilongu is one of the architects and founders of a youth-led nongovernmental organization in Zambia called Africa Directions, established in 2000 to build the leadership capacity, skills and confidence of Zambian youth.
Africa Directions (AD), where Chilongu is program manager, offers youth programs in sports, drama, peer education, reproductive health services, voluntary HIV/AIDS counseling and testing, legal advice and life-skills training. It also organizes girls’ groups, whose members meet weekly to discuss issues that will affect them as women and to encourage one another.
Approximately 500 young Zambians aged 4 to 26 visit Africa Directions’ three community centers each day. Many are from HIV-affected families. Some are orphans, and nearly all struggle financially.
Chilongu said that when he was growing up, “the community never had any social amenities for young people,” and many of his peers abused drugs and alcohol. “Most young people were school dropouts, including myself,” he said.
Chilongu began volunteering as a peer educator and performing health-related dramas at a preschool in Lusaka run by the Society for Women and AIDS in Zambia (SWAAZ).
“I really wanted to see change among young people” and reduce “the sense of hopelessness” among them, he said. He volunteered at SWAAZ for about four years before helping to establish Africa Directions.
Creating opportunities for young people “continues to be my passion,” Chilongu said, adding that his greatest reward is seeing the transformation of young Zambians into productive citizens.
A COMMUNITY-BASED APPROACH
Africa Directions teaches local young people to run the community centers and to become peer educators and program officers so they can gain skills for future employment.
The AD website cites a number of success stories. For example, one of the group’s HIV-awareness projects combines health education and sport, and trained the only girl who participated in AD’s boxing program. That girl, Esther Phiri, became a junior lightweight boxing champion.
Chilongu now has more than 10 years’ experience working to empower Zambia’s youth. He also is a theater artist, acting coach, writer, choreographer and director who produced the English-language soap opera Brothers on Zambian television.
His work attracted the attention of the U.S. Embassy in Zambia, and Chilongu visited the United States under the U.S. State Department’s 2010 International Visitor Leadership Program.
Conscious of his own interrupted schooling, Chilongu urges youngsters to pursue an education — and he has resumed his own. He attends Zambia’s National Institute of Public Administration part time, working toward a diploma in project management. Ultimately, he wants to focus on theater administration or development studies.
“I am presently challenging myself, my colleagues and fellow practitioners in youth work to recommit to the core values of education, as it is the only way to build a nation,” he said.
Chilongu hopes to build a cultural center one day, and meanwhile, he will continue working with Zambian youth.
“Young people can make a significant contribution to society when families, institutions and communities invest in their character, civic skills and leadership development,” he said. “When young people are seen as part of the solution to [society’s] problems, their creativity, values and energy stimulate positive change.”
To learn more about Africa Directions, visit the organization’s website.