Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Prudence Mabhena is the central figure in the Oscar-winning documentary short Music by Prudence, premiering on HBO on May 12.
Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Prudence Mabhena is the central figure in the Oscar-winning documentary short Music by Prudence, premiering on HBO on May 12. HBO
The music of Prudence Mabhena and her band, Liyana, is a powerful sound that echoes out of a country in crisis: Zimbabwe. The band's success is all the more extraordinary because all the members of Liyana are physically disabled — most of them born that way. In Zimbabwe, that can be a death sentence.
The film Music by Prudence won this year's Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject. That's a category you might otherwise have missed, except that at this year's ceremony it provided a moment of drama when the director's acceptance speech was abruptly interrupted by an aggrieved former collaborator. That caught people's attention — but the real drama can be seen in the film itself. It premieres May 12 on HBO.
Prudence Mabhena's story is a tale of abandonment and neglect by her parents and stepmother, and then of a new home at Zimbabwe's King George VI School for the Disabled. That's where the band took shape.
"Liyana means 'it's raining,' " Mabhena says. "And Africa is a dry place — so whenever it rains, we feel blessed. So we feel that whenever we're singing onstage, we bless our audience."
'These Children Get Locked Away'
"It's quite tough to live in Zimbabwe, especially when you are disabled," Mabhena tells NPR's Renee Montagne. Her stepmother despised her. "I felt like nothing; I felt useless. ... I really agreed with her, 'cause at the end of the day I would find out that, yeah, for real, there is nothing that I can do for myself. I ended up believing in whatever she said."
Many families in Zimbabwe reject children born with disabilities, explains Roger Ross Williams, the U.S.-born documentarian who chronicled the story of Mabhena and her band. Fearing witchcraft, adults in Zimbabwe often see their children's differences as a sign that the family has been cursed.
"These children get locked away," Williams says. "They're hidden from the rest of society because the families are ashamed of them."
Mabhena was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that deforms the joints; it has cost her both of her legs, and makes it difficult for her to use her arms. When she was born, her father's mother advised her mother not to nurse her. After her parents abandoned her, she was cared for by her maternal grandmother, a rural farmer who kept Mabhena at her side as she worked.
Mabhena (second from left) is the lead singer of the band Liyana, also featuring Tapiwa Nyengera (left), Elikem Mabhande, Energy Maburutse, Honest Mupatse and Marvelous Mbul. The outfit got its start as a class project at a school for the disabled in Buluwayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city.
Mabhena (second from left) is the lead singer of the band Liyana, also featuring Tapiwa Nyengera (left), Elikem Mabhande, Energy Maburutse, Honest Mupatse and Marvelous Mbul. The outfit got its start as a class project at a school for the disabled in Buluwayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city. HBO
"The bond between Prudence and her grandmother is amazing," Williams says. "Her grandmother taught her to sing. She would carry her out to the fields with her, and she would lay her in the fields as she worked in the fields. ... She would sing to Prudence, and Prudence learned to get comfort from music."
"My lovely grandmum," Mabhena says, listening to a clip from the movie in which she and her grandmother sing together. "I love her, because she's actually the one who made me see life as something important."
'She Sings All Day Long'
It seems almost as if Mabhena wakes up singing — in fact, in the film, there's a scene where she sings while she's having her teeth brushed by a caregiver. Music, she says, "brings joy into my life."
"She sings all day long," Williams says.
In the studios at NPR West, Mabhena sings eight a capella bars of a song her grandmother taught her when she was 4. She tells Renee Montagne what the lyrics mean: "Hush baby, don't cry; your mom will come someday."
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Mabhena did the red carpet with director Roger Ross Williams — who took home the statue for documentary short subject — at the Oscars on March 7.
Mabhena did the red carpet with director Roger Ross Williams — who took home the statue for documentary short subject — at the Oscars on March 7. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
That hasn't happened for Mabhena; not yet. But things are different, even so.
"Maybe because of the film, my parents have changed a bit," she says, quietly. "They now know how I felt."
As do many of her fellow Zimbabweans. Williams describes what happened when Mabhena — now a teacher at the school where she discovered how to put her joy in music to work — made her homecoming after the trip to the Oscar ceremony.
"There were hundreds of people waiting at the airport," he says. "And as she was carried off the plane, at the foot of the stairs was her father — on his knees, tears streaming down his face, begging her for forgiveness."