Africa Directions was the collaborative dream of four young and enthusiastic Zambians ( namely Evans G. Banda, Mark Chilongu, Boyd K. Nyirenda and Victor Mawere). At the time of their first meeting, Evans was a determined and innovative journalist with a youth magazine he helped start, called Trendsetters. Mark, Boyd, and Victor were spirited dramatists using their talents to educate communities about HIV/AIDS with the Theatre group they belonged to, called SWAAZ Arts.
In 2000, Dr. Tobias Rink de Wit, from the Netherlands, visited Zambia for an Africa-wide HIV/AIDS conference, ICASA, which was being hosted in Lusaka. Dr. Rink de Wit had the opportunity to watch SWAAZ Arts group performing at the conference and was impressed by the caliber of the actors. After the show, the doctor enquired about how the group had so much talent, and what the future was for these Zambian youths.
Dr. Rink de Wit, who was working in Addis Ababa at the time, returned to Ethiopia excited by the young talent he had seen and the potential he believed they had. He organized for the SWAAZ members to participate in a cultural exchange festival being held in Addis Ababa and recommended them to the Royal Netherlands Embassy of Lusaka for sponsorship. The Embassy granted the request with the stipulation that the young artists be accompanied by a journalist to cover the events.
The group opted to bring along another youth for this opportunity and were, as if by providence, connected with Evans Banda. Evans was already building a reputation as a rising star in the journalism world for his articles encouraging youth and providing them with life-saving reproductive health information.
Being in Addis opened their eyes to the ways in which young people, from all walks of life, were making a difference in their communities. They were particularly inspired by what the Ethiopians were doing to change young people’s behaviors. Every day, after performances, the group would sit and discuss the challenges faced by Zambian youth and their own future plans. It was from these social gatherings that the idea of Africa Directions was born.
The initial plan was to have an art centre where people could come to watch performances and be taught artistry skills since the SWAAZ members saw the educative power of theatre. Evans, who had the opportunity of visiting several places in the US, including some community centers in impoverished cities, envisioned a centre where young people could access positive recreation and health information. The two parties merged their ideas and started networking with other organizations for support. In 2001, The Royal Netherlands Embassy gave them a small grant to open the first-of-its-kind youth recreation center in Mtendere, a rough and unplanned settlement within Lusaka.
The team got right to work, conducting educational outreaches & carrying out a baseline survey to access the needs and knowledge levels about HIV/AIDS of young people in the area. Children and youth began flocking to the center in much larger numbers than anticipated giving witness to the void which had existed for young people. After two years of observing what these young people were able to accomplish with little resources, the Embassy gained confidence in the project and extended its sponsorship for four years. The organization received a lot of technical support and training from the then chief of party Zambia Integrated Health Programs (ZHIP), and current board chairperson of AD, Mrs. Elizabeth Thomson Selemetos. Africa Directions quickly gained recognition for their innovative programs and the effectiveness their theater group had in information dissemination.