Prudence Mabhena keeps going forward after 'Music by Prudence' wins the Oscar

After becoming Zimbabwe's most famous cultural export, Mabhena yearns for international audience

May 13, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Hours before Prudence Mabhena performs for a packed house at Maryland Institute College of Art's Brown Center for the local premiere of the Oscar-winning short documentary "Music by Prudence," she is relaxing in her guest room, watching MTV as she greets an interviewer.

"We can get MTV in Zimbabwe, you know," she says, with a toothy grin. It's a casual conversational stroke that immediately puts you at ease and also conveys how savvy she is and how internationally ambitious. "Music by Prudence" came to life partly because of early financial, technical and creative support from MICA and its chief of film and video arts, Patrick Wright (who gets co-producer and assistant editor credits). When I ask her what it feels like to follow the film full circle to its home away from home, she says, simply, "It feels great."

Mabhena suffers from arthrogryposis, a condition that deforms joints. The film movingly portrays her everyday life at the King George VI School for disabled children in Bulawayo, and her performing life with fellow student-musicians from the Afro-marimba fusion band Liyana. This school and this band gave Mabhena and her friends havens from the widespread Zimbabwean belief that children born with disabilities are the spawn of witchcraft. In "Music by Prudence," Mabhena and her partners express anger but also hope. They do it musically, whether in performance or rehearsal or impromptu riffs.

In person, Mabhena radiates emotion, also honesty. When she talks to you, and focuses her wide eyes on you or flashes you her dazzling smile, she makes you feel she's all there, responding to every shade of thought and emotion. If she can answer a question fully, she will, in rich, deep tones that echo her singing voice. If a question puts her on the spot or asks her to speculate on issues she's can't control —such as whether her success has put a dent in Zimbabwe's shriveling prejudices against disabled men, women and children — she demurs in a way that clearly conveys her frustration.

I immediately remember what "Music by Prudence" director Roger Ross Williams had told me a few months ago: "When you meet her and get to know her, she's such a dynamic person that you forget about the disability pretty quickly." Except that's not quite my experience of it. She doesn't want you to ignore that she must be in a wheelchair. She does want you to know how alive she feels while sitting in that wheelchair — mentally, emotionally and physically. For example, at the King George VI school for disabled children in Bulawayo, where she found education and purpose and helped put together the band, she now teaches not only music and singing, but also dancing.

"Yes, I teach dancing at the King George School," she says. "Nobody can believe that I teach dancing. But if you could see me teaching my students, you'd be surprised. No: You'd be amazed. Usually they do body and head movements, so I can actually show them. I started KG VI when I was young as they are. I know them. So if I can't communicate with my body or my head, I can do this — and she goes through a startling series of facial expressions that indicate direction as well as mood.

Director Williams views her in a heightened, romantic light, but that's part of what inspired him to give this film its striking, ardent coloration. It's as if his passion brought out the supernal pastoral beauty of the otherwise deprived countryside. And his personal commitment to Mabhena broke through any shyness she had about revealing the terrible privations of her childhood to the camera. In the film's tender yet unflinching close-ups, she explains that her paternal grandmother told her mother not to breast-feed her, and that her mother left her father and moved to South Africa (and remarried). Only the girl's maternal grandmother offered support.

Mabhena explains it simply. "Roger had a way of asking me these questions; it wasn't hard to talk to him at all. By the end of the day, I told him everything."

Williams had told me, "Her dream is to leave Zimbabwe. Like most people would in Third World countries, she wants to live and perform and have a career. That's what she hopes to come out of this. Let's get her on the world-music performing circuit and where she can have a real life, in countries that have handicapped-accessible bathrooms and buses. She's a strong, independent woman. She does what she can. She'll spend 10 minutes struggling to wiggle off her wheelchair onto a couch to watch a movie rather than have someone pick her up and put her on that couch."

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