According to her group’s website, for a long time almost no one knew about that hauntingly beautiful voice. No one knew the strong, resilient woman that owned it. They were unable to overlook her body: crippled and deformed with a debilitating condition called arthrogryposis.
When Prudence was born, her paternal grandmother wanted her dead. In Zimbabwe, disabled children are believed to be the result of witchcraft. In extreme cases, families kill them—to remove the “curse” from their family.
Prudence’s mother kept her and fed her. Cast out of her husband’s (Prudence’s father’s) home, she brought the baby to her own mother’s rural home. Four years later, she left.
Music by Prudence traces the path of this little girl, and her remarkable transcendence from a world of hatred and superstition into one of music, love, and possibility.
The child was raised by Rachel Ncube, her maternal grandmother. Grandmother Ncube taught her to sing. A working farmer, she would strap the little girl to her back as she worked the fields. But when Prudence turned 7, she knew she couldn’t school her. So she sent her to live with her father and his new family.
There, Prudence fell prey to neglect and isolation. Her stepmother refused to touch her, and called her a worthless, helpless “ant.” For two years, Prudence lived like an animal–crawling on the floor and sleeping in her own urine, and worse. Every day, she dragged herself to a mango tree in the backyard, and told herself that her nightmare will end someday. She was despondent enough to attempt suicide–twice.
There is a haven away from this pain: King George VI School & Centre for Children with Physical Disabilities (KG6). Privately funded, KG6 struggles on the brink of destitution. Yet every year, hundreds of disabled children blossom and thrive.
Prudence gets a scholarship to KG6, and her new life begins.
She gets a wheelchair. She goes to school. She begins singing in earnest.
The school administrators suggest she try out for the school choir. Within a week, she’s leading it. She also joins Inkonjane, an a capella group. Then Prudence and some fellow musicians start an Afro-fusion band called Liyana (“it’s raining” in Ndebele). All eight members are disabled.
Liyana becomes Prudence’s family. Her new friends understand her journey. They rehearse together, joke and laugh, and collaborate to write new songs.
Bulawayo provides the film’s colorful backdrop. Like the rest of the country, Zimbabwe’s second largest city is largely dysfunctional. Water stoppages and electrical blackouts are daily events. The supermarkets have no food, so residents are forced to use the black market for necessities. Inflation and crime run rampant.
Prudence teaches at KG6. She collects a salary, room, and board. Despite her disabilities, she is one of Zimbabwe’s rare, employed citizens. She speaks in a soft voice with a British lilt–spiked with jokes and playfulness and spirit. She is transformed.
The movie’s final scene is a concert by Liyana. The crowd applauds and whistles, then the screen darkens, leaving only Prudence’s lustrous, smiling face. Recalling the opening sequence, her face is in perfect symmetry to the African sky, rushing and streaming towards hope.
However her winning did not go without any controversies.
Journalist and co-producer of this year’s Best Documentary Short Category winner “Music By Prudence,” Elinor Burkett, went up the stage and interrupted her co-producer Roger Ross Williams’ acceptance speech, earning her the title of “Lady Kanye.”
Here is the transcript taken from ABC:
Roger Ross Williams: Oh my god. This is amazing. Two years ago when I got on an airplane and went to Zimbabwe, I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I’d end up here. This is so exciting. This is so exciting. So exciting.
Elinor Burkett: …Let the woman talk. Isn’t that the classic thing? In a world in which most of us are told and tell ourselves that we can’t. Liyana, the band behind this film, teaches us that we’re wrong. Against all odds they did, so we can. So the bottom line is, to me, my role models and my heroes, Marvelous and Energy, Tapiwa, Goodwell, the whole rest of the band and especially Prudence.
Roger Ross Williams: And Prudence who is here. Who is back there. Prudence is here tonight. This is for Prudence.
This is what Roger Ross Williams couldn’t complete. He planned to say:
“Thank you, Academy. Thank you, Sheila Nevins, Sara Bernstein, my producer Elinor Burkett and my incredible crew.
And my mother Betty… she got on a plane for the first time in her life to be here – I love you, Mom!
And Prudence Mahbena…
Prudence was born in a country that despises the disabled. Prudence, you had nothing… nothing but spirit, intelligence, and talent. And with your band Liyana you touched us all.
Liyana means It’s raining, which in Zimbabwe is a gift from God.
We don’t always recognize the gifts we get and Prudence, I’m so very happy to be a part of recognizing you tonight.
I love you!!”