Chapters Of My Soul
Zambian born Portia Thanjekwayo is the daughter of a Freedom Fighter; her 94-year-old grandmother is a royal figure in the village of Livingstone, Zambia. She grew up in Lusaka, the capital and largest city of Zambia where a child is born every 47 seconds, someone dies every four minutes, the median age is 17 and life expectancy just 53.
“My father was a freedom fighter for the ANC government which is the Nelson Mandela party. In the wake of the outbreak of political violence in South Africa, he was killed in the line of duty. I was just a year old when he died. I so miss the love of a man that I’ve never known.”
Raised in a developing nation, Portia (a name borne by the heroine in Shakespeare's “The Merchant of Venice”), her mom and stepsister were homeless most of the time over the course of her youth. Eventually, Portia’s mother was able to secure housing in a compound. Their home (a concrete shanty not larger than 16 square feet) was carpeted in dirt from wall to wall degraded by the latrine—a mere seeping hole in the ground. They lived without power or running water and during the rainy season, sewage swept across their doorstep. Portia slept on the floor alongside her five family members in a room called the “lounge.”
“When I was very young, I once dreamt that I sang before a room filled with presidents; it seemed so real. I thought ‘how will this ever happen? Look where I am.’ I knew this would not be possible.”
Lacking means to afford everyday essentials and transportation, Portia and her family walked miles at a time to attend church and school, and often went without food.
Village in Zambia
Portia's Home in Zambia
“When we did not have food, my mother would send me to collect a vegetable, called Amaranthus, that grew alongside the road. We would boil the bondwe (in our native language) with salt.”
The Pentecostal Church became young Portia’s sanctuary. She joyfully sang before the church sermons and was quickly extended the invitation to join its prominent praise and worship team. As part of its ministry, the team embarked on various crusades; eleven-year-old Portia lead many of the religious hymns performing before thousands.
Freedom Of Rain
At 17, Portia exchanged pleasantries and kind courtesies with a young man who often carried food and personal care items to her home.
“At first, he was very attentive and I thought he cared for me. …and then he became mentally and physically abusive. It was difficult to leave him because he provided (a bit) for me and my family.”
Not far into the relationship, Portia fell pregnant and, as is customary to Zambian culture, she was forced to move into his home.
“I was very young and could barely take care of myself, let alone a newborn. I had no say, no choice and nowhere else to go.”
Portia gave birth to her daughter, alone, on the floor at UTH University Teaching Hospital (Zambia’s largest public hospital that attends to more 5,000 patients a day).
“There were no beds available; my daughter was born on black plastic that I had brought with me to cover the floor. The nurses took my daughter and put her on a trolley with other babies. She had a high temperature and was relocated to the D Block located far away from the mother shelter. Because of the distance, it was very dangerous to travel alone to the block; we would walk in groups to the ward to see our babies. It was a very scary time for me.”
Portia and the baby returned home to the man (her daughter’s father) who beat her so frequently and maliciously, she feared for her life.
“He was drunk more times then he was sober; I thought he would kill me. One night, I waited for him to sleep and in the early morning hour, I wrapped my daughter in a blanket and I ran with my child in my hands in the pouring rain.”
Portia sought refuge at her mother’s house.
“The following day, he showed up and broke the door down, punched my mum in the face, and dragged me out of the house and beat me. I was bruised, felt broken and lifeless. The police arrived and took him into custody and I’ve not seen him since. I was free.”
Grace & Condemnation
With her mom’s helping hand, nineteen-year-old Portia landed a position as a grocery bagger at Shoprite Checkers (a multi-national company headquartered in South Africa). Through a cattle town lined with mud houses where chickens and goats roamed freely, Portia walked nearly four miles a day to and from work.
“My gaining employment was unorthodox. Shoprite has a policy that all employees must have a high school education; I did not. I made $50 a month and was tremendously grateful for the job.”
As chance would have it, Shoprite held an annual national singing competition—“Top Stars.” Portia’s store manager, who recognized her extraordinary vocal talents, encouraged her to enter. She made the grade through the various levels of the contest and was named “Top Female Vocalist.” The only female to win, Portia was flown to Cape Town South Africa to perform in the 2011 “Top Stars” finals. Her singing success afforded her a promotion to become a full-time cashier.
“This promotion was unheard of and I was determined to keep this job, for me and for my daughter, to make a better life. I was upped to $130 per month.”
Though soaring from her accomplishments and blessed with one of God’s greatest gifts—her daughter—a dark cloud hovered. The young unwed mother was disparaged by her community and ostracized by her church. She lost one of her greatest loves…her saving grace…to sing for others.
“Music and singing was my savior; it made me feel vibrant and alive, helped me to express myself and I felt hopeful. I had to find a way to perform again.”
Determined to find an alternate creative outlet, Portia took to the streets to explore the Zambian nightlife. She discovered a boy band that held a residency at a local bar—the Vegas Lounge—and attended their nightly show time-after-time sharing her desire and plea to sing with them.
“One evening, my friend introduced to the band that I really could sing and they finally let me up on stage. I sang ‘I Will Always Love You.’ The crowd went crazy and applauded for more. It was the first time in my life that I really, truly, believed in myself.”
That impromptu performance laid the groundwork to enable Portia to sing with the boy band on most nights where she performed for free.
“While I wasn’t making any money, I felt alive again.”
The Misty Lounge
Bonds That Ache
The gig with the boy band kept Portia out many nights into the wee hours of early morning. She worked at Shoprite during the day and headed directly to the club to revive her spirit. Her absence fostered concerns at home. Her mum, who was a “prayer warrior,” sought guidance in the nearby mountains to pray with the prophets; the message was revealed that her daughter (Portia) was a devil worshiper—a satinist.
“My mom and I never had a conversation about where I was or what I was doing; nor did I feel like she cared. Rather than asking me, she sought answers from a prophet. When she received her ‘answer,’ she tossed all of my belongings (what little I owned) out onto the street, delivered my daughter to a neighbor and changed the lock on the door.”
In the dark of the evening, Portia collected her things and her daughter, and for many weeks the two remained homeless.
“I eventually managed to get $25 together and rented a small shelter. I had no bed, no blankets, no cooking essentials—nothing. My landlord gave me a pot, a plate, a spoon and a fork. My daughter and I lived day-by-day.”
Portia’s one-room shelter was located directly opposite the outside toilet (near the open-air shower) right next to a chicken run. She drew wash water from an open well where frogs swam playfully. She and her daughter slept on a borrowed children’s mattress soiled in urine. The robe that she won as part of “Top Stars” competition blanketed them each night.
“No matter my desperate circumstances, when I left that little shanty each morning, I made sure I looked clean, smelt fresh and wore a smile. My greatest fear was loosing my job.”
Many weeks later, Portia was invited to sing at The Misty Jazz Lounge, an upper crust venue frequented by the well-to-do and a place Portia never imagined stepping foot.
“I sat in a booth on the side of the room and gazed at all the nice-looking people—the large table where westerners were seated caught my attention. When I took the stage, I sang ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Diamonds’ (Rihanna).”
Portia’s performance was once again met with resounding cheers, rounds of drinks, requests for “more” and fired the interest of two young westerners—one such gentleman, in particular, became a captivated admirer and one of Portia’s most- enchanted fans.
“His name was ‘Brendan.’ Brendan would not take ‘no’ for an answer. He called. He came hunting for me in the compound and at work with invitations to take me out to dinner or for drinks. I thought, ‘what do you want with me’?”
Unbeknownst to Portia, Brendan Clark was a successful entrepreneur and impassioned philanthropist in her country. His charity organization had been lauded and highly commended for rebuilding the area hospital malnutrition ward (providing millions of meals to the hungry and ambulance services to remote Zambia to reduce the overall mortality rate by more than 70%). Brendan had coordinated and scheduled a charity function at one of Zambia’s most exclusive hotels; diplomats were expected to attend and the First Lady of Zambia was special guest of honor.
“Brendan explained that he had committed to another singer for the event, but after hearing me, he asked me to sing a few songs; I agreed to do it for the charity. I didn’t know how I was going to get there; I didn’t know what I would wear (especially in front of the First Lady of our nation), but I pulled it off with God by my side and a smile on my face.”
Portia arrived by taxi and appeared in the same dress that she wore in the “Top Stars” competition twelve months before.
The persistent and attentive Australian romantic suitor sought various avenues to court the young Zambian singer with the offer to “carry her away.”
“To me, all of this seemed too unreal. While Brendan was pleasant enough, I could not give up on my permanent and reliable job, that I had worked so hard to retain, for such an imaginary proposal. I finally gave into Brendan’s charm…we worked closely together on my music and at his charity functions...we fell in love…we married. Brendan’s belief in me is immeasurable; my cup runneth over.”
Taking a leap of faith, Portia took Brendan’s hand and went on to produce her first single titled “Hope” as a recollection of the time spent together working at the children’s hospital ward.
“I vividly recall entering the ward entrance where the deceased babies laid wrapped in a local cloth-‘chitenge;’ their parents were to collect them. This horrible and rampant tragedy inspired the lyrics of my song, ‘Hope’.”
Through various new relations, Portia was introduced to American philanthropist Tani Austin, co-founder of Starkey Hearing Foundation. Much like Brendan, Mrs. Austin became an immediate fan and invited Portia to perform at the organization’s annual charity gala held for the benefit of the hearing impaired. Tani made arrangements for Portia and her husband to fly from Perth, Australia to Minneapolis to attend.
Left to Right: Brendan Clark, Portia Clark, Tani Austin & Bill Austin
“We landed in Minneapolis, were driven to a luxury hotel and later transported to Tani’s home; she was hosting a pre-gala party. There were celebrities everywhere; I could not believe that I was standing there.”
The following day, Portia attended sound-check; backed by a 26-piece orchestra, they rehearsed her song.
“I wept; this room was about to seat nearly 2,000 people filled with celebrities and world diplomats and I was to sing before them.”
Portia walked the red carpet and was led to the “Austin Table.” Seated in front of her was former President George Bush and beside her sat Paul Williams and Katy Perry (who also performed that evening). Mr. and Mrs. Gene Simmons (KISS) and Mr. and Mrs. Scott Borchetta (Big Machine Records) sat on the other. President Bill Clinton arrived later in the evening.
“My performance followed President Bush’s introductory speech; President Bush graciously greeted me backstage before my performance. Bill Clinton complimented me with a hug and Paul Williams downloaded my song that very evening. THIS was the dream that I had when I was a child. THIS was a dream come true.”
Left to Right: Portia Clark, President Bill Clinton, Brendan Clark
Transported in private planes and limos, adorned in gowns, attending galas and celebrity gatherings, and appearing in the media and on various stages throughout Australia and the states, doors of opportunity opened and friendships flourished from that moment on. Portia has since appeared upon a number of occasions at the annual Starkey Gala. She crafted the Starkey Hearing Foundation mantra song, “So The World May Hear,” (produced by Craig Portiels who has also worked with Cher, Billy Idol, Rod Stewart and Ozzy Osbourne); sheperformed at the Domain Stadium, filled with 43,000-plus football fans, as part of the Fremantle Dockers half-time show…and at the conclusion of “the chase,” Gene Simmons officiated her wedding ceremony sealing it with a KISS. The Caribbean affair was featured in New Idea, Australia’s largest print publication.
Two years later, Portia was introduced to award-winning recording artist Darius Rucker (Hootie & The Blowfish) whom she met backstage at the 2013 Starkey Gala.
The two vocalists reconnected in Sydney some months later and confirmed the arrangements; Portia flew to Nashville in July 2018 to record.
“I am so humbled that Darius kept his word and recorded with me. …another testament that dreams really do come true.”
Portia recorded the duet “Ready To Fall” in Music City with the pop/country artist along with three other solo tracks. In preparation for her upcoming CD release, she travels to and from Nashville to write and record. She will release her freshman CD, CHAPTERS OF MY SOUL, in 2019. Featuring emotional, true-to-life tunes—musical pages torn from her life story—CHAPTERS OF MY SOUL is a reflection of her spirit and a mirror of her journey.