Henry Olonga: A year after his heroic protest, the rebel still walks the high ground

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Next week it will be a year since the cricketer Henry Olonga left Zimbabwe, and with it his family, his friends and most of his worldly goods. He has not been back, which is probably a sound strategy. At Christmas, when he flew to Africa to see his father, they met in Kenya. For Olonga has made a personal enemy of President Robert Mugabe, and Mugabe's enemies have an unfortunate habit of turning up, if not dead, then not always in tip-top health.

The man from Matebeleland now lives in Maidstone, Kent, which I suppose is as good a refuge as anywhere from the atrocities of the Mugabe regime. He is trying to forge a career as a musician, but has also joined Lashings Cricket Club, owned by David Folb, who likes putting internationals on the payroll. Viv Richards, Wasim Akram, Shoaib Akhtar, Allan Donald ... all have turned out for Lashings down the years. But not all have been given a room in Folb's house, as Olonga has.

Olonga's offence against the Mugabe regime, of course, was to wear a black armband in last year's World Cup match against Namibia, a symbolic gesture to mourn the "death" of democracy in Zimbabwe. His fellow protester was his white captain, Andy Flower, but courageous as Flower was, Olonga stood to lose more. Perhaps even his life. And sure enough, the death threats started rolling in.

I ask whether he has received death threats since moving to England. "Not really," he says. "The one negative in my life is having to live with David Folb; I must have done something bad in a previous existence." He roars with laughter at his own cheek.

For most of the last four years Olonga has had little to laugh at, although he is cheerful enough in this interview, which lasts for the best part of two hours and takes place, strangely, in a back room at the London Canal Museum. For some reason the museum has been chosen as the venue for a Zimbabwe night, at which exiled Zimbabweans are to speak about the suffering they have endured. Olonga is top of the bill.

It is difficult, in some respects, to know what to make of him. 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. In other respects, though, it is easy to know what to make of him. He is a brave and indeed heroic young man.

It is nine years since he became the first black cricketer to represent Zimbabwe. The middle-class son of a paediatrician, he had already been to a boarding school with as many black boys as white, and was a leading light in mostly white school productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, so breaking racial precedent in international cricket held no terrors.

"I never wanted to stay in the comfort zone," he says. "It had never mattered if I was surrounded by white people on stage, I just believed in my talent. A lot of people in this world are victims, but not all of them have a victim mentality. I never felt I was in that team because I was black. I felt I was there on merit. And I got on fine with the white players. I'm sure there were guys who had racist attitudes towards me, but I was never made to feel as though colour mattered."

Not, that is, until he reached Headingley on Zimbabwe's 2000 tour of England.

"We were playing Yorkshire, and in the dressing room one of the senior players said to Mluleki Nkala, 'you're the blackest black I've ever seen, as black as charcoal'. I said 'some of us are offended by that sort of language' and he said 'shut up, Olonga, you've just got a chip on your shoulder'.

"I was fuming. And I said 'guys, I don't agree with these land invasions, but you know what they're going to do, they're going to knock some of you off your high horse!' I look back now and think maybe that was inappropriate, but you know what, there was a lot of truth in it. I don't agree with a thing Mr Mugabe's done, but I can understand the anger black people felt at seeing prosperous white farmers having it all for so many years."

But it was no wonder, I venture, that his white team-mates took umbrage. After all, hadn't Heath Streak's family been booted off their land? Olonga gives a derisive snort. "He wasn't booted off his land. They listed his farm [for sequestration], but I'm sure it's been unlisted now he's captain."

Whatever, Olonga was given the cold shoulder from then on. His team-mates talked to him only about cricketing matters, otherwise he was ignored. "I was the only black guy in the whole team who'd ever said anything vaguely challenging to these white guys," he says. "I became an outcast. You only have to look at my performances in that period. In 1998 and 1999 I played well, took lots of wickets. From 2000 to a year ago, my performances went to pieces. How could I feel comfortable playing in a team that wouldn't talk to me?"

That he was not dropped compounded his team-mates' resentment. "When I was playing badly and the selectors were still picking me, all of a sudden they had ammunition to say I was just getting picked because I was black."

Zimbabwe then went on a tour to India, New Zealand and Australia, where Olonga's form continued to dip. When he returned to Harare he handed in his resignation, complaining not only that he was being picked on, but that other black bowlers were being bullied in the nets, that the white batsmen were trying to smash out of sight every ball they bowled.

His resignation was rejected. "They said 'we need you, you're an invaluable part of the set-up, a lot of people look up to you'. You know, the usual. But in any case, after unloading my problems I felt heard, and sometimes that's all it needs."

However, the story of his attempted resignation somehow reached the press. The source of the leak was not him, he insists. But whoever it was set the cat among the pigeons. Zimbabwean cricket entered a period of hand-wringing, with a task force established to investigate levels of racism.

"Multiple choice questions were handed out," says Olonga, with a wry chuckle. " 'Do you think there's a lot of racism, quite a lot, not much, very little, none at all?' And of course white people and black people saw things very differently. The blacks said there was heaps of racism. They said 'there are talented young black players in my club but they never get picked for the provincial teams because the selectors at provincial level are white and just pick their sons'. The whites, meanwhile, said 'there's no racism, these people are just not good enough'."

Either way, the Zimbabwean Cricket Union - patron: R Mugabe - decided that reform was needed. A manifesto was drawn up, with fixed quotients at all levels for black players, black coaches, black umpires.

"They felt they had to go about it aggressively and they did, which was good in that it gave opportunities where there had been none, but bad in that players could be fast-tracked and might not be good enough. So, far from tensions subsiding, they got greater. And it became another reason for the white players to say 'Olonga's stirred it up again'."

In the meantime, Olonga had started to play for an all-black club side in Harare called Takashingo. And was horrified to find, for the first time in his life, that racism cut both ways. "I had met plenty of white racists but it was another thing to meet black people who hated whites and to recognise that as wrong, too. The trouble is that if you have a victim mentality you can justify that hatred. The day after I wore the black armband, the club held a kangaroo court and kicked me out."

The famous black armband was actually black insulation tape, which is decidedly ironic, since Olonga ended up dangerously exposed rather than safely insulated. Another irony is that he and Flower, forever now united in cricketing and indeed political lore, were by no means friends. Flower had been one of those who had made Olonga's life a misery. The first time they had spoken on a friendly basis for over two years was in a Harare cafe where Flower, speaking softly, suggested making a gesture of protest towards the Mugabe regime.

"A lot of people think Andy dragged me into it," Olonga tells me. "But he wouldn't have done it if I hadn't joined him. I had to put aside my personal feelings about him, how he'd treated me in those years."

I ask Olonga to describe the day of protest itself - 10 February 2003. They had given a statement to a trusted journalist, and it was to be embargoed until the start of the match at 9.30am. In the meantime, he and Flower decided to seek the ZCU's permission for what they were about to do.

"We went to see the chief executive, Vince Hogg, who said 'guys, you can't do this. You're under ZCU charge and you can't do it'. We told him that our minds were set. He said 'do you understand the consequences?' We said 'yes, but we also understand the consequences of doing nothing'.

"He was horrified with due reason. They had been planning for the World Cup for months and months, this was the first game, Flower and Olonga drop this bombshell, and the patron of Zimbabwean cricket lives across the road. But the statement was already in the hands of the press."

Following the exchange with Hogg, Olonga and Flower returned to the team's changing-room. "Andy said 'guys, H and I - he called me H - have made a statement and here it is'. Some of them said, 'that's brave, I wouldn't do that'. And then we went out and played the game. I heard that Mr Mugabe was not amused. I heard that he took it personally."

Olonga's girlfriend was not amused either. She sent him a long e-mail, explaining why she was breaking up with him. "And you know what, every time I read it, I can't fault it. It was sad that she did it the way she did it, but I understand why she did it. At the end of the day I wasn't a saint. And maybe there was pressure from the family." Maybe. Her grandfather's half-brother was, wait for it, none other than Robert Mugabe.

Olonga sighs. He's entitled. He played just once more for Zimbabwe - against Kenya, on 12 March last year - before deciding his position was untenable. "So basically I lost my girlfriend, my home and my career in one go, which wasn't easy, but at least it meant a fresh start, a new country, an end to all the nonsense."

And yet it is not quite the end to all the nonsense. The nonsense goes on, as politicians and cricket administrators here grapple yet again with the question of whether England's cricketers should tour Zimbabwe.

I ask Olonga where he stands? "I'm not here to tell England what to do," he says, slowly, "but I can speak strongly on behalf of my country. If England call off the tour tomorrow, it will be the end of the matter. They will organise an alternative tour and Zimbabwe will be out of the spotlight. But if the thing drags on, and keeps people talking about it, that's good. Even if England go, people will be disgusted, but that's good too, as long as the Zimbabwean government does not get to make political capital out of it.

"Having said that, I do not believe they should go. Sport is important. It fills a void in people's lives. And if you have a sporty population, you have a healthy population. I love sport. But what kind of life is it to have no food and yet have cricket? Why celebrate a victory over Bangladesh if people can't feed themselves, and forget food, if people are getting tortured, murdered and raped?"

It is a rhetorical question delivered with force from the very top of the moral high ground. It deserves to be not only heard, but heeded.

Henry Olonga life and times

1976 Born in Lusaka, Zambia.

1984 Aged eight Olonga is first introduced to cricket.

1993 Makes first-class debut for Matebeland versus Mashonaland.

1995 Makes history by becoming the first black cricketer and the youngest-ever player to represent Zimbabwe at Test level, when he makes his debut against Pakistan in Harare. Also makes his one-day international debut against South Africa.

1996 Included in Zimbabwe's World Cup squad but does not play, turning down a place in the team for the final game as he does not feel he deserves to be picked.

1998 Achieves first five-wicket haul in Test cricket against India in Harare.

1999 Makes World Cup debut against India at Grace Road, Leicester. Helps Zimbabwe to the super sixes stage of the tournament.

2000 Takes six English wickets in a ODI at Newlands.

2002 Plays against Pakistan in the last of his 30 Tests.

2003 Joins Andy Flower in wearing a black armband to "mourn the death of democracy" in their country at the World Cup. Subsequently flees his homeland after threats to his life and is granted a five-year visa to remain in Britain.