The first thing that strikes you about Henry Olonga is that he is a man who loves life. After everything he has been through, that should come as a surprise to nobody.
Olonga is one of the two Zimbabwe cricketers who decided to make their mark during the 2003 World Cup by wearing black armbands, designed to tell the world that they were mourning the death of democracy in their homeland. It was a brave thing to do, some would say foolhardy, and it led to him being effectively charged with treason.
Andy Flower, the other cricketer to make the protest, had announced his retirement from international cricket prior to the World Cup. One of the best batsmen in the world, he was heading to England to finish his playing days, knowing that a coaching career (he is the current England coach) lay ahead of him. For Olonga, there was nothing, other than uncertainty.
The World Cup was being played in South Africa and Zimbabwe in 2003 and Olonga and Flower chose to make their protest during Zimbabwe's opening match, against Namibia in Harare.
There are some things you should know about Olonga – he was the youngest player to represent his country and, more significantly, he was the first black man, so taking his stance against the regime of Robert Mugabe did not come lightly.
Olonga has decided that the time is right to tell his story, and he does so in Blood, Sweat and Treason, an autobiography in which no punches are pulled. I should know, because I helped him to write it. As we locked ourselves away and he began to tell me about his life, it quickly became obvious that although he was born in Zambia, he retains a love and a passion for Zimbabwe even now. While Mugabe is still alive, however, he knows that he cannot return.
As a boy, he was taught that Mugabe was a great leader, and he had no reason to doubt that this was true, but as he grew up, so he became aware of a growing sense of unrest in his country. Stories began to spread about rebels who not only chose to defy Mugabe's regime but who wanted to overthrow the man. He had been elected as the first prime minister and then president but quickly began to abuse his power – and people who did not agree with him had a habit of disappearing.
Olonga became disillusioned with politics in Zimbabwe, but what could he do? He was only a cricketer. It was a major surprise to him when Flower approached him and asked him to join him in a protest against the president as the two players had barely spoken since Olonga stood up for a fellow black player who had been racially abused by a white team-mate during a Zimbabwe tour of England.
Olonga was wary at first, and was reluctant to do anything to rock the boat, but he eventually realised that he had a golden opportunity to make the world sit up and take notice, and what better time to make a protest than during cricket's most important global competition, when the eyes of the world would be watching. Initially, Olonga and Flower considered leading a boycott of the event by the Zimbabwe team, but they realised this would rob a generation of players of the chance to prove that they could compete with the best in the game.
After much debate, they eventually decided that a black armband was the answer, and before they took to the field during that fateful match, a joint statement was released to the media in which the pair announced that they were mourning the death of democracy in their homeland. All hell broke loose and Olonga was dropped from the team for the next game. Interestingly, Flower was not. He was their best player and they could not do without him.
Both men knew that as long as their team remained in the competition, they had little to worry about. Bad things had a habit of happening to Mugabe's enemies, but even he knew that he could not just make two of his country's highest-profile cricketers vanish into thin air.
Olonga was convinced that his best chance of escaping the reach of Mugabe's henchmen was for Zimbabwe to qualify for the Super Sixes stage because they would then have to fly to South Africa to play those matches. Incredibly, Zimbabwe did make it through, thanks in no small measure to being awarded the points for a win when Nasser Hussain and his England team refused to travel to Harare to play Zimbabwe, citing security concerns.
The Zimbabweans were quickly eliminated from the Super Sixes and, suddenly, Olonga was on his own. He stayed with friends in Johannesburg and eventually found his way to England, but only after a mysterious South African benefactor had paid for his flight to London.
He was befriended by David Folb, who owns Lashings Cricket Club. Folb put a roof over Olonga's head and paid him to play for his cricket team, a motley assortment of world-class cricketers now some way past their prime. It was the start he needed.
He is a fabulous singer with a glorious tenor voice – one of his biggest regrets is that he did not follow his heart and become a professional singer – and he released an album entitled Aurelia, which is a remarkable piece of work. He is also a gifted artist, photographer and filmmaker whose faith is very important to him. He has travelled the length and breadth of England telling his story, but felt that the time was now right to make it available to a wider audience.
Olonga is married to Tara, an Australian he met while playing cricket, and their story will have the happy ending it deserves when their baby is born at the end of the year.
Blood, Sweet And Treason by Henry Olonga, Vision Sports Publishing, £18.99.
Life and times
Name: Henry Olonga
Born: 3 July 1976
Cricket career: Genuine paceman who reached speeds of up to 90mph, he was the first black cricketer to play for Zimbabwe and the youngest, aged 18, in the Test against Pakistan in 1995. Took a wicket in his first over as Zimbabwe won a Test for the first time. Took 68 wickets in 30 Tests, and 58 wickets in 50 ODIs.
Controversy: Alongside team-mate Andy Flower, wore a black armband at 2003 World Cup to protest against "death of democracy" in their country. Was unable to return to Zimbabwe and was charged with treason (which carries the death penalty). Went into hiding and now lives in England, where he is a musician.Reuse content