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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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