When Lucia Nzunkulu was three years old, her mother tired of her and abandoned her at her father’s house.
But he didn’t want her either.
That was the best thing that could have happened to Lucia, now 14.
“My father had a new family and wanted nothing to do with us,” she explained. “He didn’t care if we ate or not.”
Lucia and her three-week-old brother ended up at Agape, an orphanage in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, that provides food, shelter and education for some 50 children.
“This is where I belong,” said Lucia. “The people here won’t dump me like my mother, who said she’d come back but didn’t. People ask, ‘How’s your orphanage?’ I say, ‘You mean my home, right?’”
Perhaps more unusually, Agape provides music.
In fact, the children have become such accomplished singers that they’re the subject of an award-winning documentary, We Are Together.
“Music is central to the orphanage,” said filmmaker Paul Taylor, who is a trustee of the Rise Foundation, which he founded after making the film, to support the Agape children’s education.
“The children have beautiful voices, but Agape’s focus on music isn’t just about performing. Music is therapeutic to the children.”
Lucia already knows that singing has changed her life.
“When I joined the choir I knew nothing about music,” she said.
“But South Africans like to sing, and at Agape we sing before we eat and before we pray. Thanks to the choir, I’ve been to both London and New York.”
Thanks to Agape, Lucia can allow herself to think about the future.
Now, she dreams of becoming a math professor or a fashion designer.
And she plans to leave South Africa, which was recently ranked the world’s most economically unequal country.
“But most of all, I want to make my own living,” said Lucia. “I just want to make the people who’ve helped me proud.”
The choir has performed in Durban, Johannesburg, New York, California, all over the Netherlands and to 90,000 people at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday party at Hyde Park in London, England.
On its album, the choir performs with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Soweto Gospel Choir. It has appeared on a Dan Zanes album. And the choir has performed on stage with Alicia Keys and Paul Simon.