Some people seem born talented. Apart from his life-changing stand against Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, Henry Olonga has worked as a Sky commentator, won a televised talent contest, recorded a couple of CDs, had homeland chart success and published his autobiography. Add to that a passion for communication and a penchant for art and filming, and you get the sense that he could do anything he wanted– and do it well.
I am not the only one to be impressed by his confidence. When Brian Viner interviewed him for The Independent a year after his exile, the journalist noted, “He is impressively bright and articulate, but my guess is that he is high on the list of those impressed with how bright and articulate he is. At any rate, he doesn’t seem exactly weighed down with humility.” However, Viner did add the caveat that Olonga was “a brave and heroic young man.”
When I met him, he showed no signs of arrogance, simply the assurance of a man who has always been able to achieve. He was, after all, not only the first black cricketer to represent Zimbabwe at Test level, but also the youngest-ever. It might be hard for British readers to stomach, but his best-ever bowling performance was against England in Cape Town in 2000, when he took a remarkable 6 wickets for 19 runs in 8 overs. To rub it in, he commented, “An English friend happened to be at the game and said, ‘I’d like to pray that you have a great game.’ So you have an Englishman to blame!”
However, sporting history should record that his greatest performance was really ‘the black armband affair’ in which he risked his life for his principles. “From my perspective there was a deep sense of injustice in the country,” he recalled, telling how it all began. “I’d been made aware of some of the human rights abuses that had occurred. I’d met a few people who’d been victims. Zimbabwe’s got a problem with corruption as well.
“I’d been asked to be the patron of an HIV/AIDS orphanage and was really touched by the plight of these young kids. Most of them had lost a parent, or both, and had no one to fend for them.
“What really broke my heart was not so much their plight – which was so important – but the fact that the government didn’t contend for them, didn’t provide for even the most vulnerable people in society. At one stage, we had a million AIDS-affected orphans in Zimbabwe, some of them living on the streets.
“The government didn’t seem to put any money aside for them. Instead, they would have this overly bloated defence budget and we weren’t even fighting anyone! Very often, they’d get new Mercedes Benzes, which was just a disgrace. I was just so outraged by a sense of injustice that these people in positions of power (who had the ability and authority to change these people’s lives by just sending a small amount of money to various causes around the country) didn’t care.
“My faith compelled me to do something. I read Isaiah 1:17 – ‘Contend for the widow and the orphan, rebuke the oppressor.’ That little bit at the end hit me between the eyes and I almost felt like it was a mandate that those of us who call ourselves Christians have to rebuke injustice when we see it.”
This was a joint protest. White team-mate Andy Flower, motivated for different reasons, initiated the incident. The two met several times before deciding that the best way to protest would be to wear black armbands while playing for their country and release a statement explaining how they were mourning “the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe”.
“We cannot in good conscience take to the field and ignore the fact millions of our compatriots are starving, unemployed and oppressed,” the pair added.
There were instant reprisals. “My club decided to drop me, effectively ending my international career. They called the press without even speaking to me,” Olonga said, explaining that if you do not play for your club, you cannot play for your country.“Then I got some death threats as well. It was a really torrid time.
“And here I was, doing what I believed was right. Most unbiased people who know Zimbabwe and the troubles it has had would say, ‘Good on you, Henry, for standing up for what you believe in’. But surprisingly, a lot of people in Zimbabwe thought that I was some kind of traitor. In fact, some of the newspaper articles called us traitors. Some were saying we were British spies. Initially, I was offended by that, but then I thought, ’I don’t think there’s ever been a black James Bond, has there?’ I took it as a compliment!
“It ended up me having to get out of Zimbabwe because of the threats on my life. I initially didn’t know how I was going to do that, but then I figured out that if we won our last game, we would play our next rounds of the World Cup in South Africa (we were playing all our home games in Zimbabwe). So if we got through to the next round, I could get out.
“But how do you tell your team mates, ‘Listen guys, if we win this next game, I get to live’? It’s not the simplest thing you can do. In my heart of hearts, I knew there was a mathematical possibility that we could get through, but we had to get past Pakistan and they were a top cricketing nation. They always have been.
“There was a possibility that if we drew the game, we’d go through, because we were slightly ahead of Pakistan on the points table on the net run rate. As you can imagine, if it rained, that would be good. I just said a quick prayer the night before, ‘God, I think I did this in your name; I think I heard you right. It was right to rebuke this man, who was abusing his people. I need your help.’
“The next day was pretty decent. We got through 15 overs, got 70-odd runs – and it started to rain. Well, this was interesting. It rained and rained. Late afternoon, the umpires went out, looked around and said, ‘That’s it. We can’t get a result.’ So we got the points and got through!
“I went back to my hotel, thinking, ‘Crumbs, what just happened?’ What actually happened was a cyclone had brewed off the coast of Mozambique almost overnight and made its way inland. We just caught the rim of this in Bulawayo, which is a long way inland. It was quite bizarre that it reached us and it rained just long enough for us to get this game abandoned. Then after it rained, it was clear, sunny skies, which was great news.
“I’m convinced to this day that there was a little bit of divine intervention in how that rain helped us.”
I was intrigued about how this incident affected his relationship with Andy Flower, as they were not exactly best friends. The nation’s transitional administration had a mandate to integrate sport, which meant having more black players picked.
“This understandably caused some tension with some of the senior players, because they viewed it as being politically motivated and not in the best interests of the sport,“ Olonga explained. “If we ever had a friendship, it was a strained friendship as a result of all this. But obviously, after doing the black armband stuff, you put your differences aside and I’ve got a lot of respect for the man. He’s a tremendous fellow. He’s got a strong conscience. He’s a fantastic coach – he was an amazing player as well, of course. He rose to be the world’s number one batsman for a period of time. Now, I’d say we’re much closer than we’ve ever been.”
The divine intervention did not stop with leaving Zimbabwe. Having reached South Africa, wondering how he would spend the rest of his life, he looked for a means of escape to England, where his brother lived. The only way to accrue the funds for a flight was to keep taking out his maximum daily allowance from an ATM a mile away. After five days of walking there and back, he found himself wishing someone would buy him an air ticket.
He continued, “Lo and behold, the next day a guy called me up and said, ‘Come to my offices. I’ve seen your interview [with CNN, about his escape] and I want to help you.’ Who is this guy? Can I trust him? I didn’t have any trust! He owned an airline and knew I needed to get out of South Africa, and said, ‘If you come back on Tuesday, I’ll fly you to wherever you want to go in the world’ and that’s how I came to England!”
Once here, Olonga had to decide what to do with the rest of his life. He listed some of his options: “I played for Lashings; I did some cricket commentary with the BBC, Test Match Special, Channel 4, and even Sky on and off. But I didn’t really enjoy it and so I decided to go back to my music, because it’s something I did back at school.”
Laughing at the name, he recalled how his agent entered him into a show called The All-star Talent Show. “It wasn’t the most testing of talent shows,” he confessed. “We had Carol Thatcher loosely dancing; Jodie Marsh dancing as well; Roy Walker was singing. Put it this way: I think they saw us coming; they wanted the public to laugh at us. I was the only one who took it seriously and so I did a song called Nessum Dorma with a pianist. With the generosity of so many people, I got the votes. That’s how I won, and I don’t talk about that too often!”
These days he is surprisingly dismissive of his former career, saying, “Try finding significance in bowling a red, leather ball twenty-odd yards and trying to hit three sticks in the ground. There’s something missing.”
It’s not what you expect of a world-class sportsman, but for Olonga, it is a matter of honesty and relativity when he adds, comparing himself with firemen and doctors, “I struggled with the whole question of significance when I was a cricketer. I’m not suggesting that cricket isn’t a great sport and doesn’t have significant achievements of its own, but what I’m doing right now is more fulfilling.
“I’ve got many things on the go: I’ve got videos, short films, music; I’ve got good messages to give to the world. So I’m not going to run after what other people run after. There’s enough people running after fame and fortune. You have a nice life, but ultimately you can lose your soul and I’m not prepared to do that.”