A long way from home
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Date: 12 March, 2004



Henry Olonga, left, with team mate Andrew Flower. Photo: www.henryolonga.net

'After much thinking about it and trepidation and seeking the Lord in prayer, I decided you can't have any regrets in life if you stand up for what's right.' What was more difficult was 'dealing with the potential consequences of that choice.'



 

Malcolm Doney listens to a talk given by exiled Zimbabwean cricketer Henry Olonga

In February 2003 Henry Olonga, Zimbabwe's first ever black cricketer, took the field in his country's first match of the cricket world cup in Harare against Namibia.

The eyes of the world's media were focused on the event because there had already been controversy about whether or not England would play in Zimbabwe because of the political and security situation in the country.

It wasn't long before the crowd and the TV directors noticed that Olonga and his team mate, legendary batsman Andy Flower, were wearing black bands around the arms of their scarlet and green Zimbabwe team kit.

Had someone died, was this a protest? The cameras zoomed in, the speculation began and the news media waited impatiently until the end of the game to find out what was up.

The two released a statement saying, 'We have decided that we will each wear a black armband for the duration of the World Cup. In doing so we are mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe.

In doing so we are making a silent plea to those responsible to stop the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe. In doing so, we pray that our small action may help to restore sanity and dignity to our Nation.' The news echoed around the cricketing world making both the front and back pages.

Dropped

They never got to wear the armbands again - promptly dropped from the side for the series. And Olonga has never played for Zimbabwe since, in fact he has never seen his Zimbabwe since. He left the team in South Africa and did not return home - having received threats on his life.

Born in Zambia of a Kenyan father and a Zimbabwean mother, Olonga arrived in Zimbabwe in 1981 after his parents separated.

While he was a star sportsman at school, he might have become a different kind of performer having the dubious distinction of being also being the first ever black Marco in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Gondoliers.

He was spotted by a theatrical talent scout while at school but turned down the chance of a scholarship to the famed London Academy of Dramatic Art to turn his arm over on the cricket field.

Henry had grown up in the region of Matabeleland and, as he grew into adulthood and into a mature Christian faith, heard stories that transformed Robert Mugabe in his mind from the heroic figure who had thrown off the shackles of colonialism to a power hungry despot.

Grip

He heard about the 'ethnic cleansing' of the Matabele in the 1980s as Mugabe strengthened his personal grip on power and attempted to turn Zimbabwe into a one party state.

But what really politicised Olonga was a meeting with a human rights lawyer who handed him a dossier put together by the Catholic Commission for Justice.

One particular story among many affected him deeply. Soldiers came to a tiny village in Matabeleland, took a 15 year-old girl and gang raped her. She became pregnant. A short while later they returned to the village, sliced her open and left the foetus lying on the ground and left the girl for dead. It was not just the story that shocked him it was the fact that this was a pattern.

By 2003 things were at such a pitch that he and Andy Flower (who had also been thinking about making some kind of public gesture) decided to act. 'After much thinking about it and trepidation and seeking the Lord in prayer I decided you can't have any regrets in life if you stand up for what's right.' What was more difficult was 'dealing with the potential consequences of that choice'.

He said: 'the more I thought about it, the more right it seemed but the more fear I felt. It's no mean thing to stand up like that in Africa, where people can have these mysterious accidents…'

Plans

They kept their plans secret even from close family, fearing they might be talked out of it. Henry had, however, sought sanction from his father in a roundabout way in the months before. 'I'd say. "It's terrible what's happening." He'd say, "Yes, yes!" I'd say, "Someone needs to stand up, don't they?" He'd say, "Yes, of course." That was enough reassurance.'

He had already experienced another, more 'supernatural' reassurance. 'I had a prophetic word over my life. A woman came up to me one day - I didn't know her from a bar of soap. Anyway, everything she said would happen has happened, or is in the process of happening. I knew God had a future for me. I knew it wasn't going to end for me after the world cup.'

The stance he and Flower made hit the headlines but the reaction from friends, team-mates and family, from 'most of the people in the country' was 'very positive'. However, Olonga was now faced with a decision. He was not picked for the team and felt he could not return to Zimbabwe.

He announced his premature retirement from international cricket. He was given work by the BBC's Test Match Special and by Channel 4, joining their commentary team.

And now he is poised to rejuvenate his singing career. But not Gilbert and Sullivan this time. He has recorded a pop album 'of good, wholesome, pure music'. More details here http://www.henryolonga.net

He misses cricket and may play again. Ideally he would like to return to Zimbabwe and play there once more. But this depends on political and economic changes. 'The worry is that the damage done to the country is irreversible. My hope is that Zimbabwe will once more be a prosperous nation, that we'll be able to export grain, be a great tourist destination. I believe it will come right.'









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