iThemba means “hope” in Ndebele, one of two major languages spoken in Zimbabwe, and it is the title a new documentary film by Elinor Burkett and Errol Webber. With wonderful good humor, it tells the story of five talented secondary-school students in the music group LiYana. But these are not ordinary secondary school students. LaYana is composed of disabled students from the King George VI School in Bulawayo, the only school in Zimbabwe for disabled children. Elizabeth and I had the good fortune to attend the Zimbabwe premier, held at Prince Edward Secondary School in Harare Tuesday evening, at the invitation of Ms. Burkett.
iThemba is first a good story about talented musicians whose dream is to perform before audiences in the United States. At the same time, it demonstrates the human potential of disabled children everywhere. With humor, it shows what life is like for many disabled teens and their oh-so normal desires and wants. It is also a film about Zimbabwe. It accurately presents life in Zimbabwe’s rural areas, along with life during the country’s critical 2007 – 2008 period when food couldn’t be found in markets and inflation reached the millions of percent.
WHO estimates that about 10 percent of the Zimbabwe population – some 1.3 million people – have disabilities. These individuals often experience rejection within their families as children, and widespread discrimination as adults in employment, transportation, education, and sports and cultural activities. This film reminds us of this injustice and of how wrong stereotypes of the disabled can be. Those attending the Harare premier included Charles Ray, U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe, and David Courtart, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Education. Ambassador Ray’s comments included the importance of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which had its 20th anniversary last year.
Perhaps most important, the audience included a group of disabled primary-school children from King George VI School, who saw and heard iThemba’s entertaining message of hope. Ms. Burkett won an Academy Award for her short film Prudence, about LaYana ‘s lead singer. iThemba is the story of the larger group.
With good music and good humor, this is a good film. Catch iThemba if you can.