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Inspirational Zimbabwe Band Brings US Audiences to Their Feet

  • Lonny Shavelson

The remarkable thing about Prudence Mabhena's voice, other than its vivid resonance, is that you're hearing it at all. When she was born, Mabhena's body was so deformed by a rare skeletal disorder that her mother was told to kill her on the spot.

"My hands are bent. They are not straight. And my legs were also the same," she explains. Her legs were amputated when she was 11 years old.

"And apart from that, I'm beautiful. I am. And, so they say, I've got a cool smile," she says, flashing it.

Her voice has been compared to the great South African singer, Miriam Makeba.

"I don't really know where my voice comes from. It's a gift I was given by God. I guess my voice sounds so good to people, maybe it's because I also use it wisely," she adds with a laugh.

Like Mabhena, the other seven members of Liyana are also physically disabled - by spina bifida, brittle bone disease, hemophilia and muscular dystrophy. They met just a few years ago as students at a school for the disabled in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city. Shortly after they began performing together, Liyana won the regional Music Crossroads Festival for young artists and toured Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium.

The young musicians, who range in age from 17 to 23, began 2009 with a series of concerts in the United States. A review of their U.S. tour in Zimbabwe's leading Sunday newspaper, The Standard, raved, "Liyana has done us proud."

That's something to hold onto in Zimbabwe, today, one of the most dysfunctional countries in the world. It is in the headlines for widespread food shortages, a cholera epidemic, record-setting inflation and violent political repression.

But the country used to have a different reputation. Soon after its independence in 1980, Zimbabwe became a center for disability rights. Dr. Raymond Lang of London's Cheshire Center for Conflict Recovery has studied disability in Zimbabwe. He notes it was one of the first countries in Africa to write equality for the disabled into law.

But Lang, who himself has cerebral palsy that affects his voice, says the recent political and economic catastrophes there have erased all gains.

"If you're living in that kind of environment, it's very, very difficult to advocate for rights," he points out. "You're really advocating for survival, with many people starving."

In the Ndebele language of Zimbabwe, liyana means "it's raining," considered a gift from God. It's also a term for good luck. When the members of Liyana perform on stage, they say they're raining down good luck. And Mabhena says that's what they'll need as they return home.

"Going back to Zimbabwe. Oh, my God," she says, as her voice breaks. "It's hard to say this. Our country is going down and down. So many people are getting in trouble. Anything can happen."

Lonny Shavelson/