prudence mabhena with director roger ross williams
Photo: Osato Dixon for Ithemba Productions Inc.
Subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, singer Prudence Mabhena shows that "disability does not mean inability."
Prudence Mabhena has a voice as sparkling as the bluest ocean, with a little sob of an undertow burbling beneath it. That voice pours out of Music by Prudence, a moving portrait of the 23-year-old Zimbabwe native, lead singer of the Afro-fusion band Liyana. Born with arthrogryposis, which causes severe deformation of the joints (doctors amputated her legs when she was a child), Mabhena weighs about 50 pounds and uses a 600-pound wheelchair. "When I see myself singing in the film," Mabhena says, "I don't know how I do it."

As painfully recounted in Music by Prudence, which received this year's Oscar for short-subject documentary, most of Mabhena's family abandoned or abused her—not an unusual fate in Zimbabwe, where disability is often attributed to witchcraft. Her fortunes began to turn at age 9, when she enrolled in the King George VI School in Bulawayo (one of the few learning centers for the disabled in the country) and formed Liyana with fellow students.

Coming home in March from the Academy Awards ceremony, Mabhena was thronged by well-wishers at the airport. "With the Oscar, she is now the most famous woman in Zimbabwe, celebrated by the society that once shunned her," says Music by Prudence director Roger Ross Williams. Currently, Mabhena is preparing for Liyana's U.S. tour later this year (check out their peppery, marimba-tickled songs at MusicByPrudence.com). "I want to show the world that disability does not mean inability," she says. "And I want someday to write a Broadway musical."

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