On Behind the Headlines we have part 2 of the interview between SW Radio Africa journalist Lance Guma and exiled Zimbabwean cricketer Henry Olonga. In 2003 Olonga and team mate Andy Flower wore black arm bands in a cricket World Cup match, to protest the death of democracy under Mugabe’s regime. Henry talks about that decision and also about the controversy that always surrounds mixing sport with politics, a topic discussed in full in his newly released autobiography, Blood Sweat and Treason.
Interview broadcast 29 July 2010
Lance Guma: Hello Zimbabwe and welcome to Part Two of this interview on Behind the Headlines with cricketer Henry Olonga. Now you will remember from last week Henry has a special place in Zimbabwean history – he was the first black player and the youngest ever cricketer to play for Zimbabwe internationally.
In 2003, he along with team-mate Andy Flower wore a black armband in a cricket World Cup match to protest the death of democracy under Mugabe’s ZANU PF regime and Henry has now released a new book on his life – Blood, Sweat and Treason and last week we were talking about that book.
Now this week we continue – Henry – general cynicism in some quarters that sports and politics should not be mixed up – I’m sure you’ve had, you’ve taken a lot of flak from some quarters – I mean how do you react to those who will say to you, you should have stayed out of politics?
Henry Olonga: Well the first thing I will say is that every country has a Minister of Sports and Culture so sport and politics kind of do mix in one sense. There’s some countries where it spills over into more of the mix – let me say this – there’s some countries like Sri Lanka where the government actually vets the selection of the team, I mean Zimbabwe is not that bad but sport and politics has always indelibly been mixed for years.
We don’t often have protests however happening on the sports field, I think that’s what people have a problem with and you can go back to Carlos and Smith in the Olympics a while back when they did the black power salute. I think generally sporting bodies do not like politics to interfere in their running.
However, we were sportsmen who had a conscience who had a platform. Our platform happened to be the sports field. You know, had I been a scientist, had I been a teacher, had I been something else in life, I would have found a different platform on which to make my feelings about Zimbabwe felt, but it just so happened that our vehicle, if you will, was to stand up for people who didn’t have a voice if you will, in the arena of sport.
And I think that’s a human reaction. I think when you’ve got an issue as big as a dictator terrorizing his own people, I don’t think that’s the time for just empty words, I think that’s the time for action and so we felt that instead of having the rule book thrown at us we were just going to use whichever means we could get and use to get our message out and so we used the World Cup of 2003.
Some people think it may have tarnished the World Cup – but you know what? The overwhelming sense that I’ve received is that there were so many people who wished that someone had spoken exactly what we said, either earlier or at a higher level. So what we did seemed to have a resonance around the world, we got support from a lot of people around the world, especially from the UK and the West; people felt that what we did was right.
With regards to the ethics of the timing of our choosing to do it – yah sure people can criticise us and they have the right to do that but ultimately we saw the bigger picture. We weren’t looking at a World Cup cricket match where at the end of the day you get a prize which is a trophy – we were looking at trying to get people’s lives that had been brutally brought to an end or people who had been brutalized in the rural areas during elections or those people that lost their lives in the Gukurahundi or whatever, the corruption in government, we were trying to highlight those issues which we felt were bigger that any sporting occasion.
Guma: Do you feel that not enough people in Zimbabwe do that? I mean it was interesting hearing you talk about your Christian values and I just thought to myself, not enough people in the church speak out about what is happening back home. So do you think this is a general disease among Zimbabweans who are prominent not to use their status in life to speak out for the voiceless?
Olonga: Hey listen – it’s dangerous to stand up in Zimbabwe, I’m sure most people appreciate that and therefore it’s a deeply personal decision and you have to have the personal conviction deep in your heart that what you are doing is the right thing. Now with regards to the Christian perspective, I think Christians definitely need to be on the cutting edge of speaking out against atrocities and evil in the world.
Now it doesn’t necessarily mean that every single Christian is called to do that because not every Christian is called to be a voice in the wilderness like John the Baptist was, and there are some people who are clearly they have that gifting on their lives, they have the charisma, they can stand up in front of a crowd, they can speak with confidence and boldness without feeling intimidated when it comes to facing the Goliaths of this world if you will – but I think on a general level, every person who calls themselves a Christian must understand the issues.
And the issues are – that weak people who don’t have a voice are being trampled underfoot by a strong leader and given a chance, people must campaign for righteousness and holiness whichever way they can do that. This is why I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for all the people that campaign in Zimbabwe, including Women of Zimbabwe Arise and all the people that are always putting their necks out and being imprisoned for it.
I’m not suggesting you go out to get imprisoned just to prove a point – no. But I suppose the thing is when we shy away from confrontation, when evil is so prevalent in a country then we deserve what we get. In fact, there was a man who put it this way, I think his name was Edmund Burke, he said evil, all that is necessary for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing. And I think that is a well quoted and often quoted phrase that I think just sums up what I’m trying to say – is when we see evil in the world and especially if we’re Christians – we do nothing or choose to instead shy away and just hide in a hide in a corner then the suffering that is enforced upon us is deserved.
Guma: Bold move that considering how the regime reacts to criticism. If I may move on, in your estimation has anything changed since the swearing in of the coalition government in February 2009? I mean, what’s your assessment?
Olonga: Well Lance, you guys have a much closer feel for what’s happening on the ground but from my perspective I’ve only really got the news media and that’s not always reliable and every story has to be vetted and I have my family. I have my dad living there and my brother there and generally the story is things are tough. Things have improved definitely on the front of how the economy has slightly improved after they went from the Zimbabwe dollar which was almost worthless to the US dollar.
I’ve heard that has allowed produce and services to be made available although expensive but at least people can have access to these things. When you had hyperinflation, people didn’t stock things, it just didn’t make sense. You stock mealie meal or whatever, meat, in your shop at a certain price in the morning by the time you get to the evening, you’ve made a loss, you’ve lost half the value of your product so shop owners were just not stocking and now that the economy has sort of stabilized I think that is a good thing that the coalition government has brought in.
However if we ask the question, has the power, the seat of power moved or shifted in any way – I don’t really think so, I think the power behind the throne, Robert Mugabe, still in charge, he still calls the shots. Morgan Tsvangirai painfully compromised – I think those were his own words, it was a very painful compromise for the MDC but I think that he felt it was his only option.
But he also, I think, felt that he was going to attain some kind of measure of power that would enable him to push through the reforms that he wanted in Zimbabwe and I gather, and look – I’m not speaking as an authority – but I gather that the power that he thought he had isn’t quite the power that he’s got. I think Mugabe probably invests more power in his vice presidents than he does in the prime minister, if that’s my correct reading of the situation.
But we’ve got some good guys – there’s Morgan of course, there’s Dave Coltart, there’s a few other good guys who are trying to force through some positive reforms in Zimbabwe and hopefully those will come through in time.
Guma: You played 30 test matches for Zimbabwe, taking 68 wickets with a bowling average of 30.52, and 51 one-day internationals taking 58 wickets – I could go on the whole day…
Olonga: That’s nothing to write home about Lance.
Guma: …do you feel let down though Henry that a country you have given so much to has treated you this way in a manner of speaking?
Olonga: You know Lance, I don’t have a problem with the way they reacted when I did my black armband stunt. Any government would react that way – it’s a big showcase, it’s the World Cup, billions of people that was the viewership – billions of people watching it all over the world, in India, Pakistan, all over the world where these huge populations love the game and worship it as a religion just about, so I understand the reaction I got.
I don’t condone it but I understand it. What I don’t understand is, actually – just recently I went to renew my passport. I don’t know if you know about the problems that are surrounding people who are trying to renew their passport and they were born outside the country or they have a stake to claim to another citizenship, well either way, now the thing that hurts me the most is I actually represented Zimbabwe at the highest level in my chosen sport which was cricket and in trying to renew my passport, they basically told me, in a manner of speaking – I’m simplifying this – that I’m not a citizen – which is just diabolical and that’s the thing that hurts the most.
You know I wrote a song about Zimbabwe – Our Zimbabwe which is a song that tried to bring people together, I bled as the book title goes – I bled, I sweated and I cried for my country, literally and it’s just really sad that the people who very often have given the most to Zimbabwe under the present regime are vilified and made to be the enemy and yet people like yourselves in SW Radio Africa, people who have made tremendous sacrifices to get the truth of what’s happening there out to people, people who are doing good things – in the court of law of life, the real heroes are not the people who have got the power and use it for ill-gotten gain, it’s the people who are weak and yet use that little bit of influence they have for good.
And that’s why I salute you guys and the work that you guys do and I know that you guys have trouble as well – you can’t go back to Zimbabwe and that sort of thing and that to me is what hurts the most, is actually that the most prominent people in Zimbabwe who are making a difference, who are doing what they feel is in the best interests of the country, those are the ones that are being vilified by this government.
And you remember, a while back, maybe just to cap this off, a while back, there was that guy called Chenjerai Hunzvi – remember him? War veteran guy? And he died and he was made a hero, he was buried at the Heroes Acre if I’m not mistaken and there was almost going to be an outcry by the war veterans if he wasn’t buried there and he was a thug. I mean that man was just an evil man.
I don’t think that man deserved to go to the Heroes Acre. And then there was a guy called James Chikerema who in many people’s eyes was a genuine hero but he’d fallen out with the regime many years earlier and they refused for him to be buried there. And this is the nature of the regime – they make heroes out of thugs and then real people who deserve some kind of accolade are made to be vilified as the enemy and that’s the saddest thing about what’s happened in Zimbabwe.
Guma: Some of the cricket players who left Zimbabwe because of the political situation, some of them are going back home. Can we say you have similar intentions or that ship has sailed?
Olonga: Hey, they phoned me out of the blue these guys, Chingoka, no it was Bvute, Ozias Bvute called me out of the blue, I didn’t even know how he got my number but he obviously asked someone who knew what my number was and he called me and he was very charming. You know – hey Henry don’t worry about 2003 you know everyone’s getting along now and it’s forgive and forget – and they attempted to try and get me back to come and do some commentary but hey, yah in your words, I think that ship has sailed for me.
I have a desire to see Zimbabwe back in international cricket, I have a desire to see them playing well at the highest level, we’ve got a good team, I want to support them but my life has gone in a different direction. I’m now married to a foreigner, I’m married to an Australian, we live in England, we have, I’m trying to rebuild my life.
You know people might think I’m doing alright in life but really I’m still just trying to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life. I’m a former cricketer, I thought that my future was going to be in cricket for a while, it didn’t end up being that way. I thought I’d be playing cricket until I was 34, 35, which is what I am now.
So for the last few years I’ve been trying to rebuild my life and choose a new direction and I’ve gone into music, I’ve gone into film making, photography, a lot of the arts and those things are not easy to get a foothold in, especially here in the UK. So I’m still working out how to earn a living consistently and how to do things that I enjoy and yet, be able to raise a family for example so if I went back to Zimbabwe it would be starting from scratch really.
So for me in the immediate future, and I don’t think I’m unique in this, there’s a lot of expats who have left the country, set up roots in other countries, in England, many millions of people in the Diaspora and obviously we’ve had these people coming over and appealing to them to come back to Zimbabwe and it’s not easy you know. They’ve got kids in schools now, they’ve got steady jobs, they live in a country that’s more or less stable.
You know the government isn’t going to pass legislation next week to steal your farm or to take your company, so why would people trade that for instability? I think that’s the big thing that the government of Zimbabwe, coalition or not, has to try and convince all these expats who are abroad that coming back is going to be OK for them. So I’m in the same boat. Look, I love the country, I love the people, they’re friendly, Zimbabwe I believe has a great future but there are a few stumbling blocks to that.
Guma: In 2006 I watched you on Channel Five’s The All Star Talent Show which you actually won…
Olonga: Did you vote for me?
Guma: …and I was shocked at what a good voice you had and I was like – wait a minute – this guy, is this guy not meant to a be a cricketer? Now the singing part of your career – can you tell us about that? It’s quite an intriguing addition to the cricketing.
Olonga: Well you’re very kind if you think I can, you know, I’m a good singer. I personally just have been singing since high school. I was never any good in junior school I don’t think, I never got picked for any lead roles as a singer or anything like that, but when I got to high school I got inspired by a few people.
There were a few seniors in the school, at Plumtree there was a guy called Mark Green who had just the most amazing tenor voice that you’ve ever heard and it was also not long, two, three years after me attending Plumtree when I was about, was it 1990 I think, the Italian World Cup – I heard those Three Tenors singing in that concert and when I heard them I just thought – My Lord, this is just amazing how they sing so I wanted to sing a bit like them and I bought all their music, you know when music was on still on tapes – do you remember those days?
Olonga: So I got their music on tapes and I used to listen to it and I used to try and copy them and it didn’t bother me that it was music that black people didn’t normally sing, you know it was all this classical stuff. Mind you I was also at the same time listening to rap and R & B and all that sort of stuff, it’s not like I only listened to classical music, I had a wide taste in music, even jazz I enjoyed.
And then when I left school I carried on with my singing after having performed in lead roles and once I had performed in lead roles at school, people used to ask me to sing at weddings and birthdays etcetera and when I left school then of course I went into cricket but I didn’t want to neglect my music and I ended up moving into a flat with three musicians – can you believe it? – with whom we wrote the song Our Zimbabwe and then I just rediscovered my hunger for music again and ever since then I got back into it.
And then when I came to the UK I got the opportunity to get onto that show, it was called The All Stars Talent Show. My agent came to me and said – hey listen, there’s this show on TV, they’re showcasing celebrities – and I wouldn’t call myself a celebrity but they’re showcasing celebrities – who have a hidden talent that no-one knows about. So they said what would you like to do, so I said I’d be happy to sing so of course I went and I sung and initially they wanted me to dress up like a Chinese peasant singing Nessun Dorma because the opera is actually based in China.
Now I can’t think of anything more ridiculous than a black man trying to look like a Chinaman – do you know what mean? I thought to myself forget this, so they got me actually dressed up by a guy called Botang, I forget his first name, whew I can’t remember his first name but he’s a very well known designer here in the UK and they got me to wear one of his suits and I got my pianist friend Bruce Izzit to accompany me and I sang Nessun Dorma and I don’t know whether it was that I was good Lance, or that the others were so rubbish that a lot of people felt that they had no choice but to vote for me.
I also asked all my friends to get on, you know and text in and support me so I don’t know how many friends I have, I couldn’t have asked that many but that all helped. So thankfully at least the British public on the whole believed that I had a nice talent and so now I’m trying to do more with it.
Guma: Which brings me to my final question and we’re going back to the book Blood, Sweat and Treason and you’re running a competition on Face Book that will allow people the chance to win a copy of your coming book…
Olonga: Oh I’ve forgotten about that!
Guma: You know – that’s the media’s job – keeping you on your toes! Just tell us about that and also how people can buy this – the basic stuff.
Olonga: Well thanks, you’re very kind. First of all, let me tell you about the competition. The competition was supposed to close last night but I think it was so poorly attended, I might have to extend it. It was basically, I provided a backtrack to the song Our Zimbabwe and people were then going to get the backtrack and put it into their digital audio workstation or whatever they use and then they were going to put their vocal on top and the best version of the Our Zimbabwe song would basically win the contest.
But I don’t think I’ve had a single entry so I might have to change that but I had a previous competition in which the best joke of the day that made me laugh would win the book and I’m going to be doing some more so all you have to do is join me as a friend on Face Book or join up on my, I’ve got a fan page as well because Face Book you can only have a certain number of friends, I think it’s 5000 and I’m on almost 4600 so I’m almost out of friends…
Guma: You are twittering as well of course?
Olonga: I’m twittering as well. Now the book itself is available, or in fact I’m tweeting – that’s what you say – you don’t say twittering do you – you say tweeting. (both laugh)…The book is available off my website, now obviously I understand not everyone has a credit card so you can buy using PayPal but you have to send that to my email address and then I’ll send off the book, it’s as simple as that.
Guma: It makes it easier you’ve got a website?
Olonga: Henryolonga.net that’s my website, if you don’t, if you forget, as some people do, they might say ah that Henry Olonga guy, what’s his email, his website again, just type my name in Google and the first hit in Google, the top of Google or your web search engine whichever one you use, that will be my website. Then go to the website, you can buy it off my, on the first page actually, click through to the main website, on the first page is all the details you need with a link that goes through to the bookstore.
I’ve actually got a nice little special offer on at the moment that if you, oh in fact I’ve forgotten what the special offer is – no, no – that ended with the pre-orders, I beg your pardon – ignore that – but either way, it’s very simple, it’s a secure site, it’s £18.99, obviously if I do gigs around the country then I bring the book with me, it’s 15 quid, so go onto my events calendar on Face Book, find out where I am, come to the gig and you can get it for four pounds cheaper just about.
Guma: Henry it’s been a pleasure having you on the programme, of course helped by the fact that I’ve just discovered you’re an old Plumtree boy which made it all the more easier for me…
Olonga: Are you an old Plumtree boy?
Guma: No, nearby at Cyrene.
Olonga: Oh Cyrene of course. You know us Plumtree boys used to have all the sportsmen, you guys used to have all the brain boxes.
Guma: Exactly! Well that was Henry Olonga, thank you for joining us on Behind the Headlines and we hope the book does well Henry.
Olonga: Thank you so much Lance and good luck to you guys as well, thank you.
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