Exiled cricketer Henry Olonga on BTH: Part 1
In this two part series on Behind the Headlines SW Radio Africa journalist Lance Guma speaks to exiled Zimbabwean cricketer Henry Olonga. In 2003 Olonga and his teammate, Andy Flower, wore a black arm band in a Cricket World Cup match to protest the death of democracy under Mugabe’s regime.
Olonga has now released his autobiography, Blood Sweat and Treason, which talks about what he went through after that. Lance asks Olonga for his take on the coalition government and whether he has any plans to go back home.
Interview broadcast 22 July 2010
Lance Guma: Hello Zimbabwe and welcome to another edition of Behind the Headlines. My guest this week has a special place in Zimbabwean history. Henry Olonga was the first black player and youngest ever cricketer to play for Zimbabwe internationally.
He also made headlines in 2003 when he along with team-mate Andy Flower, wore a black armband in a Cricket World Cup match to protest the death of democracy under Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF regime. Now on the 19th of July Henry released his autobiography, Blood, Sweat and Treason. Henry, thank you for joining us on the programme.
Henry Olonga: Hi Lance and thanks for giving me this opportunity to speak to your listeners and hopefully let them know a little bit more about my life and hopefully the book as well.
Guma: Alright Henry, first things first – tell us about this book – is it out and where can it be bought?
Olonga: It is indeed, today it goes on-line all over the world of course, through the big on-line retailers, you can get it in the supermarkets, wherever you can. So it’s really, it’s a day we’ve been looking forward to with baited breath, the book has taken about six months to finally produce, I’ve proof read it over a period of two months – my eyes are almost falling out and I’m just glad it’s finished.
So today just happens to be the day that we launch it of course but we released it about a week or so ago for the press and the media, for people to get a hold of it and so far we’ve had some positive reviews so thankfully it seems like people like the book. It’s not a long read, it’s about three days worth of reading I think and I think it will give you a brief outline on my life and a few things that happened in Zimbabwe as well.
Guma: Now the title of the book – Blood, Sweat and Treason – that’s a catchy headline – what’s the thinking behind that?
Olonga: Well I wish I could claim that I came up with that headline but I didn’t, I didn’t come up with the title of the book, it was actually one of the people who was in the planning committee who came up with it.
We were going for something really mundane and drab and boring – something like Henry Olonga, The Story of my Life – or something and this guy came up with it saying how about Blood, Sweat and Treason?
I suppose blood, sweat and tears is a very common phrase that’s used in sport. I believe there was a band called Blood, Sweat and Tears many years ago in the 50’s or 60’s as well, maybe that was how the phrase was coined, I’m not sure. But either way most people who play professional sport understand that unless you bleed and you sweat and you cry on the sports field you’re not truly a sportsman so I think for that reason it obviously has significance for sports lovers but of course it’s more than just a sports book.
It talks about my growing up in Zimbabwe, in Kenya, in Zambia. I talk a little bit about my family, I talk about going to school in Zimbabwe in the early 80’s, I talk about the politics surrounding that time. Of course when it was quite a turbulent time in Zimbabwe’s history – we had Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe at each other’s throats, we had the Gukurahundi massacres, then we fast forward into my career and finally my retiring at the World Cup of 2003 after mourning the death of democracy.
So it’s all there, it’s about a hundred thousand words I think, 280 odd pages and yah, I think it’s quite a comprehensive review of my life although we cut out a lot because it was going to be too tedious to read.
Guma: Now Henry, without giving too much away, let’s set the stage for our listeners, from an early age, what inspired you to take up cricket as a sport?
Olonga: Well you know when I was going to school in the early 80’s, Lance, the Zimbabwe Cricket Union as they were called back then, was starting to have this development of the game going on in schools and they sent some coaches out to Reps which was my junior school in Matopos and there was a guy called Bob Blair who came out in 1984, ’85 I think it was, he was giving us Bob Blair signed bats and balls, they were made up of plastic so they were perfect for kids messing around with them in the harsh African climate with the dry heat and the rain that comes unexpectedly.
So he showed us how to hold a bat, he showed us how to hold a ball, what off spin was, leg spin, all these terms that you use in cricket and I just fell in love with the sport. I’ll say this, it didn’t come to the fore for a long time – I was actually dreaming of being an athlete throughout my childhood, I wanted to go to the Olympics, I was still a Kenyan at the time because my dad had given us Kenyan passports or had obtained Kenyan passports for us and I wasn’t a citizen of Zimbabwe, so for me, my big dream was to run for Kenya.
Now I mean – how many Kenyans do you see losing a race in the Olympics? You know what I mean so that was my big dream and then what happened was, when I was about 16, Lance, my athletics coach, he’s a guy called Atherton Squire, he was at my high school called Plumtree which is in Matabeleland as well near the border with Botswana and he’d been my mentor for a number of years.
He’d got me running great times in the 100 metres, 200 metres, I did long jump and I was jumping a good distance, I was throwing the javelin 60 metres, so for me, my dream of becoming a decathlete running for Kenya or competing for some country – whether it was Zimbabwe or Kenya, it didn’t matter for me, I was young then – it was going to be realised. But then he left, he went to Harare, he went to a school called St John’s, a private school and they’d head hunted him so he was gone, so my mentor had left and I didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life.
It’s not like I lost all vision but I just didn’t really know what to do with myself and then my cricket coach came and he spoke to me – he’s a guy called Roy Jones, at Plumtree, he’s an old boy of the school and he’s back teaching – and he said to me that he thought I had the talent to play for Zimbabwe so with that little chat I had with him, I had a dream, then I started to practise, then I started to get results, then I played for my province.
I played for Matabeleland with Heath Streak and a guy called Mark Decker and Wayne James who was an old Plumtree boy as well and a guy called Ethan Dube as well. Ethan Dube was a guy who should have been the first black player perhaps to play for Zimbabwe but for some reason they didn’t pick him and then I obviously progressed through those teams. I went and played for the “B” side and within a few weeks of leaving school, maybe even a month or so, I was making my debut against Pakistan in ’95.
So everything happened very quickly, within a two year space of time where on the one hand I was dreaming of being an athlete, then my coach left and all of a sudden I had a different dream and it was fulfilled.
Guma: It’s interesting you talk about being at Plumtree because I was at nearby Cyrene Mission and we used to hear a lot about the Olonga brothers – you’ve got a brother that used to play rugby I take it?
Olonga: That’s right, Victor – he’s my older brother, he’s older than me by two years, funnily enough he’s always been older than me by two years and he loved his rugby, Victor, from a young age he was a tough guy. I’m not suggesting that I wasn’t a tough guy but I played cricket, I also played rugby but I wasn’t big and muscular and strong like Victor – he liked his body building.
So he went into rugby from the age of about – I mean he played at junior school but he became a serious rugby player when he was about 15, 16 and then after writing his ‘O’ levels, he didn’t come back to school, he went abroad and he actually played a few matches against some teams.
I think he played against Wales in Harare at the Police Grounds and he scored a massive try. I mean everyone just loved it – he ran from the 22, from his side, all the way through the Welsh defence and scored a try and I think that opened the door from him to come and play rugby here in England and then he ended up doing very well for himself and he ended up captaining Zimbabwe for a number of years.
And then of course he was banned I think for a protest that they did about playing conditions on a rugby practice pitch or something. But either way, Victor, yah he was very good, he was a very talented rugby player and very proud of his achievements as well as a rugby player.
Guma: Like I said, we’re not giving too much away but you made your international debut in a test against Pakistan in Harare in 1995…
Olonga: That’s right.
Guma: …and it’s documented aged just 18 years and 212 days becoming the youngest player ever to represent Zimbabwe. Just briefly talk us through that day – that must have been one hell of a day for you.
Olonga: Well Lance it was massive. It wasn’t massive just for me, it was massive of course for the country because of the political significance as well. But it all happened very quickly for me, like I said after leaving school all of a sudden I found myself in the ‘B’ side which went on tour to South Africa, I played well against those South Africans and then we came back to Zimbabwe and I played in a warm up match against Pakistan at Harare South Golf Club.
They’ve got a cricket pitch there – and I did alright, I was bowling very fast and this was against Wasim Akram, Aamir Sohail, Salim Malik, Saeed Anwar – the guys who had just won the World Cup in ’92 so it was a pretty hot team and I did well against them and so all of a sudden people were saying – hey you know this kid might be good enough to make his test debut.
In fact there’d been whisperings about it for a number of years – in fact I’ve heard subsequently after retiring that they’d wanted to play me even when I was still a schoolboy but they felt that I was too young – so I might have made my debut at the age of 17 even – I’m not sure. But either way they picked me and that day itself was just an extraordinary day.
First of all there was the amazing honour of walking onto the field to a standing ovation when all the white people in the crowd recognised the significance of the moment so they were all on their feet, standing up and clapping and it was a proud moment for me, receiving my cap from the captain, I think it was Andy Flower at the time.
And then we walked out, I was walking out with Heath Streak and Dave Houghton, Andy Flower, Grant Flower, Guy Whittal and my first ball in test cricket was an anti-climax if I may say that by virtue of the fact that I bowled four wides down the leg, Lance. You can imagine – all that tension that had built up, the excitement, everyone was building – this is the first black player to play for Zimbabwe, this is a moment of history and Olonga sends down a wide down the leg.
Mind you, most people who have watched my career know that I wasn’t blessed with accuracy. I used to think to myself, if I don’t know where the ball is going, how’s the batsman going to know right? So anyway after that I bowled a straight ball, the crowd applauded, it was ironic applause of course because now they thought OK he can bowl a straight ball, and then I got a wicket with my third ball – can you believe it?
It was down a leg again so it didn’t deserve a wicket but the batsman Saeed Anwar touched it, he got a little bit of wood on it and obviously all the guys behind the wicket appealed and to my surprise, the umpire gave him out – I think it was Mervyn Kitchen and so all of a sudden you think – right I’ve gone from hero to zero after my first ball back to hero after getting a wicket with my third ball I was to go back to zero again because in a few overs I was called for throwing.
Now for those of you listeners who don’t understand what that means – it means you’ve got a technical problem with your action and you are technically bowling with an illegal action. So this was now very, very embarrassing – I mean I’ve covered this in the book in a little bit more detail than we’ve got time for but it was just the most awful thing that could have happened to me on my debut.
In fact the worst thing that happened to me on that day was an old boy of Plumtree, in fact I don’t know if he went to Plumtree but I know his son did and his son was my captain, he came up to me and he said to me “Mr Olonga”, I said “Yes sir” – I was down on the boundary and he said “You know the last person who got called for chucking 32 years ago, never played for his country again.”
Guma: And he had to use the word chucking hey?
Olonga: Yes can you believe it – this was on the day when I’ve just made my debut and then this man comes to tell me he thinks I’m never going to play again. I was so mad, I just took that as a challenge and I thought OK I’ll just show you. And so it took me a long time to sort out my action, I went to India, I went to South Africa and I also went to Australia where I spent probably three or so weeks respectively in India and Australia but I spent six months in South Africa in ‘97 at the Plascon Cricket Academy and then after that I came back and almost pretty much cemented my place in the side for three or four years.
Guma: Now when you and Andy Flower made the black armband protest, you released a statement of course saying ‘in all the circumstances 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 of our beloved Zimbabwe.’ This as I said in my introduction is the one gesture that got so many headlines in 2003. Talk us through that, what was the thinking behind doing this?
Olonga: Well again Lance, that’s one of those questions which is so general that the scope of this interview just won’t be able to give us enough time to cover it but in a nutshell, myself and Andy Flower had come to the same place. We had perhaps travelled different routes to get to that place but we both came to the place where we realised that things were so abnormal in Zimbabwe that they needed to be challenged.
Now from Andy’s perspective, I believe and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I believe he witnessed an old friend of his, the farm getting destroyed, this man’s livelihood obviously being destroyed and also the livelihoods of all his workers because these farm invasions, love them or hate them, have affected white and black people and he obviously got to a place where he felt this needed to be challenged. There could be other reasons that Andy decided to do that so maybe perhaps I’ll leave him when he writes his book to explain exactly what got him to that place but from my perspective – a number of reasons.
First of all Lance, I’m a Christian, I believe in Godly, biblical values and I gave my life to God when I was about 16 years old, I became a Christian then and ever since then I’ve tried to understand what it is to have a biblical outlook on life and you know, when you’ve got an all-powerful leader who is crushing, oppressing and making the lives of his own citizens a misery, then those people have every right to appeal to a higher power but what about when you’ve got orphans and widows – you know.
The bible is very clear on how we ought to stand in their stead. We are to rebuke the oppressor, in fact this is a scripture in the Book of Isaiah – rebuke the oppressor and contend for the widow and the orphan – Isaiah 1 verse 17 and that spoke to me one day when I was reading it. Another thing is of course the corruption in Zimbabwe. I mean that absolutely made me crazy. We were getting charged 64% or so tax and we had very little to show for it.
Here in England you get charged whatever percentage you get but at least you get free healthcare and free education perhaps in most cases and many, many benefits – public transport that’s reliable etcetera and in Zimbabwe, most of the time, those taxes do not go towards making the general population live lives that are of a slightly higher standard.
Instead we were seeing politicians enriching themselves – the Willowgate scandal where these guys were buying cars and selling them for profit – I mean we’ve had so many corruption scandals in Zimbabwe I don’t need to go through the list but either way that made me a little angry and I started to think geez someone’s got to speak out against this corruption.
And then there was the DRC you know – we got involved in the war in the Congo where they were plundering the resources there, sure they were trying to ostensibly keep stability in the region at the behest of Lauren Kabila who got assassinated later but ultimately, most of the people who were not getting enriched in the DRC were not Zimbabweans, the average Zimbabweans, it was mainly the people who were connected in high places.
So there are hundreds of things that got me to that place – so I’m just loosely touching on them – my faith, corruption in government, obviously the involvement in the DRC but ultimately it was hearing a story about the Gukurahundi massacres in the Matabeleland region that I grew up in. You know I have memories of our teachers carrying guns.
When I was about eight or nine years old in my first year of attending Reps, there was a guy called Bray Mudavanhu who was one of our teachers there and he used to carry a gun after hours and we used to ask him – why are you carrying a gun? – we used to ask him that, you know all these questions about guns, it was such a fascinating thing for an eight year old kid with a teacher who’s got an AK47 – he’d say things like – hey you know if you hear the bullet or you hear the crack of a gun you’re not dead because normally you won’t hear it, you’ll be dead by the time the sound arrives and he would tell us fascinating stories about this.
But he would also tell us about this guy called Richard Gwesela and the dissidents that were working in the area – as a nine year old, eight year old, you don’t understand what the concept of dissidence is or the Fifth Brigade and what they were doing, but when I grew up, when I was an old man, I say old man relatively but I was 25, 26 I got handed a dossier put together by the Catholic Commission for Justice which I’m sure you guys are familiar with and some of those stories just made my blood boil.
There was a story of these two girls who got gang raped by some Zimbabwe National Army forces for two days or so, it was a number of days and then they ended up being pregnant and then many months later, these soldiers returned and they just bayoneted these girls wombs open and the foetuses which were still moving, fell on the ground. My Lord – when I heard that I just thought what kind of country have I grown up in? What kind of country have I represented at the highest level?
You know whenever we used to go on tours, I used to defend Zimbabwe’s right to be an international Test playing nation. They’d ask us – what about Mugabe, what about human rights abuses, what about corruption and I’d say – ah no, no, we’re just cricketers, we’re here to put the best foot forward that the country has.
I’d say all those cute little answers that you get groomed to say by management, but there was a growing sense that hmm that something was wrong here in this country and people don’t talk about it and so – I know this is a long-winded answer but – ultimately I came to the place where I decided someone’s got to speak out and ultimately, that’s what we did.
Guma: Well that concludes Part One of this interview with cricketer Henry Olonga. In the second part of course we’ll be asking him about the general cynicism from some quarters that sports and politics should not be mixed up.
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