Monday 29 October 2012

A week with Oscar Award-winning Liyana in Maputo

I spent a week with the Oscar Award winning Bulawayo school band Liyana or King George VI & Centre for Children with Disabilities (KG6) in 2006 when I covered the Southern Africa Music Crossroads in Maputo, Mozambique. They taught me what loving oneself means without hating the other person. They taught the meaning of life, and the importance of time

Liyana means ‘it's raining'. 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 - Prudence Mabhena.

Liyana is the group that spawned Prudence Mabhena whose story of perseverance in the face of adversity as a disabled girl won an Oscar award. Her story was captured in the short film titled Music by Prudence.

Born with a condition known as arthrogryphosis, a rare congenital disorder that severely affects the joints of the body, Prudence was deserted by her parents. 

The father, Mkhokheli Herbert Mabhena, travelled all the way from Jambezi area, Matabeleland North while her mother came from SA to welcome her at the Mqabuko Joshua Nkomo Airport.

The father wept while on his knees and begged for “forgiveness” from his daughter.

We travelled by road on a mini-bus from Harare to Maputo. On our way to Maputo, the mini-bus had three punctures during the night. I had to help drive since there was only one driver. We hit Maputo on the evening of the second day.

When I first saw the group, I had this feeling depression that comes from pitying them but when the journey warmed up, they made me realise that it’s the soul that matters and not how we look – able-bodied or not.

Those guys are full of joy and jokes. The long and trouble-some trip was reduced into one long joyous journey. 

Of course, they went on to steal the show in Maputo against groups from Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique.

Prudence was the soul of the group.

Although they came out second, they won a prize to tour Sweden and in September and October 2006 the band spent three weeks in Sweden and then extended their tour to the Netherlands and Belgium.
During the tour they had people up and dancing at the 30 or more shows.  Each member brings something unique to the band but the whole performance is perfected by the lead singer, Prudence, whose voice never ceases to amaze.  

She writes her own songs, specialising in the use of the Ndebele clicks, however she can now sing in seven other languages!  

Prudence the lead singer spent 3 months in Switzerland singing with the Hora Theatre in Zurich.  Her voice has an incredible range and has been likened to the famous South African singer, Miriam Makeba.  

It is not often that one sees or hears about a band of physically disabled musicians.  Despite their various physical disabilities, they are a professional group of musicians who are able to keep an audience enthralled and usually up on their feet dancing.  

Their stage performance is energetic, dynamic, professional and fun.  Their own enjoyment and enthusiasm is immediately transferred to any audience. As soon as the first notes are played the audience breathes a sigh of amazement and begins to join in the fun – foot tapping, clapping, whistling and even standing up and dancing. 

The music is irresistible.

 Bulawayo group wins Oscar nomination

A NINE-PIECE music group from Bulawayo is proving that disability is not inability after landing an Oscar nomination for Short Documentary.

Music by Prudence is a short film produced by Prudence Mabhena, the lead singer of Liyana.
Liyana’s music was described by one American magazine as “a fresh, bright sound led by a singer with the voice of an angel.”

The 35-minute documentary charts the band’s life story, with special focus on the 22-year-old Prudence who was born disabled and suffered rejection by her family at an early age.

The group, who got together at Bulawayo’s King George IV School for Children, was discovered by Zimbabwe-born Leslie Goldwasser. Now based in the United States, Goldwasser liked their music and Prudence’s life story while on a visit to Zimbabwe, leading to the group’s first tour of the United States where they performed at the Apollo Theatre in December last year.

While in the United States, they befriended rocker Sting and the widow of John Lennon -- Yoko Ono -- who recorded a song with them at the John Lennon Bus.

Speaking by telephone from Bulawayo, Prudence told of her pride this week, but revealed she would NOT be at the March 7 Academy Awards because her American visa expired.

She said: “I am very proud about the nomination, it’s the best thing ever to happen to me. The whole group is excited about this and we hope we will win.

“I wish I could be there for the awards, but my American visa expired and there is no time left.”
Each member of Liyana was born with or developed a serious physical disability since birth, and seven members of the group move around with the aid of a wheelchair, including Prudence.

Meet Prudence, the star of Oscar-winning short film Music by Prudence

When Music by Prudence outpaced its competition to win the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short, it marked the next phase of an epic journey for young African women with arthrogryphosis, a rare congenital disorder that severely affects the joints of the body.

Her journey began in Zimbabwe, where it is believed that disabilities are caused by witchcraft. In extreme cases, babies are even killed to eliminate the “curse” from the family. 

Though her case was extreme, and though her paternal grandmother had insisted her mother refrain from feeding her, a death sentence for the helpless child, her mother disobeyed and Prudence lived.

Prudence’s childhood was struggle for survival, striving to have her most basic needs met. She was neglected, isolated and ridiculed. 

In the face of such constant degradation and dehumanization, Prudence filled with despair and longed for an end to her suffering. She attempted suicide…twice.

In an area of the world where disdain prevails and minds are typically closed to the potential of people with disabilities, the King George VI School & Centre for Children with Disabilities (KG6) shines though like a ray of hope. Prudence was awarded a scholarship here at the age of 9 and her life was inexorably changed.

Not only did she find a loving environment where she could trust and thrive, not only did she find independence in a wheelchair, she found her voice. A beautiful, haunting voice that was leading the school choir within a week of trying out. 

A deep, soulful voice that ultimately led Liyana, the Afro-fusion band formed by Prudence and 7 fellow students and musicians, all with disabilities. 

“Liyana means ‘it's raining’,” said Prudence. “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.”

Roger Ross Williams, director and producer of Music by Prudence, weaves an inspiring tale of optimism and hope while bringing to light the challenges that people with disabilities face worldwide and the success they can achieve if given the opportunity. 

Not only did he take chances dramatically to bring this work to fruition, he and his crew took great personal risk in filming in a country where journalism is officially illegal. He is also the first African-American to win an Oscar for directing and producing a film.

Now 21, Prudence is teaching music and dance at KG6 and plans to use her catapult into the limelight to raise awareness for people with disabilities in the third world. 

During her trip to the United States, she will meet with a number of people and organization, including President Barack Obama, the United Nations and the attendees of Abilities Expo New York Metro. 

In addition to discussing the film and her future plans, she will also share with Expo visitors the music that has captured the world.

Tax deductible donations can be made to the Music by Prudence Project, an initiative to establish Prudence as an international advocate for people with disabilities, at

Prudence stars at Colorado festival
A PACKED house at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival, an annual Memorial Day documentary film gathering in Colorado, was reduced to tears when Prudence Mabena came out on stage and belted out “Amazing Grace” after a film about her, “Music By Prudence” screened last year.

To hear her is to hear something so sweeping and profound that it is never forgotten.

Prudence was born with a crippling condition called arthrogryphosis, which left her with twisted and useless arms and legs that had to be amputated.
But she was given a voice — such a voice that it coerces ungoverned emotion from those around her.

When she first began performing, Mabhena could sing for one to two hours during a show without a break. But recently, sets her free was starting to leave her as she’s had to do shorter shows and take breaks in the middle and come back.

It became harder for her to breathe as a collapsing spine wore on her lungs.

“I was getting tired. After doing anything, I was so tired,” Mabhena, 23, said from the Denver Children’s Hospital on Thursday.

On Jan. 24, she had a surgery there in which doctors put rods into her spine and were able to straighten it. And Mountainfilm, in large part, made that happen. Here’s how.

Dr. Rick Hodes knows spines. He appeared at Mountainfilm in 2009 with the movie “Making the Crooked Straight,” a documentary that focused on Hodes’ endeavors in Ethiopia, where he helps facilitate spinal surgeries for children with crooked backs. 

Hodes also adopts as many kids there as he can to put them on his health insurance. He’s a bit of a saint, to say the least.

His film won the Moving Mountains Prize that year, which donated money to his cause — money Hodes used for another life-saving surgery — and Festival Director David Holbrooke brought him back as a judge in 2010.

He crossed paths with Mabhena, who was here with the film about her struggles and triumphs, and Hodes examined her while his son stood guard at the door.
“My whole life is bad backs,” Hodes said Wednesday. 

He took photos and notes, and arranged for a surgery in Ghana. That fell through, but he worked out another surgery in Denver at the Children’s Hospital, performed by Dr. Mark Erickson.

If she hadn’t have gotten the surgery, her back could have pushed into her lungs further. Because she sits in a wheelchair, her problem is worsened.

“She would have, at some point, had to stop singing. Her work would be in breathing, not singing,” Hodes said. “We’re not going to somehow cure her. On the other hand, she’s going to have a much more quality and quantity of life.”

All this, because of a film festival in a tiny mountain town. A festival that got its start with roots climbing films and van-dwelling mountaineers.

“It was Mountainfilm Festival that brought us all together. … It’s sort of funny how life works,” Hodes said. “Somehow, Mountainfilm is making the world a better place.”

That’s not lost on Holbrooke.

“It’s wild — two people from Africa in this world of broken spines, and we’re able to connect them. We’re able to help them,” Holbrooke said. “I love that. This is what the heart of our festival is — making people’s lives better if we can.”

Last Thursday afternoon, Mabhena felt well enough to wheel around the hospital and take a phone call.
“I’m good,” she said. “The doctors are surprised by my recovery.”

She was expected to spend three to four days in intensive care recovering from the surgery. She spent a night and was out, that spirit of hers pushing her along.

If everything goes to plan, she’ll have another surgery on Monday, this one to straighten out her hip so she can sit upright in her wheelchair instead of twisted.

“I feel straighter,” she said. “Now, I can lie on my back, and even sideways without any pain.”

And that seemed impossible at a time for the impossibly contorted Mabhena, who was called an ant in her home country, where disabled people are looked upon like a curse.

Prudence, whose smile beams like streetlights in perfect dark, was abandoned by her mother, looked after by her grandmother and then lived with her father and stepmother, where she was neglected and left alone to wallow.

She ended up at a school for the disabled, where she found her calling in music.

She’s far from alone these days. She’s just recorded a gospel album, and her hope is to return home and belt out an enormous set supporting its release.

“My hope is to go back and launch the show,” she said. “I’m hoping to make it a very, very big launch.”
When Mabhena is waiting to feel better, she sings a song. It’s called “My Hope.”

“I start singing it in my heart, and it gets me going,” she said. “I still have that hope that everything will be fine.”

And for now, it seems, it will.

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