Thursday, 26 August 2010

An interview with Henry Olonga

Former Zimbabwean cricket legend Henry Olonga recently visited Liverpool to speak at the Slavery Remembrance Day Festival taking place at the excellent Merseyside Maritime Museum. I was lucky enough to have a long chat with Olonga who revealed himself as a hugely polite, knowlegable and principled man still full of regret and anger about what has happened to his beloved Zimbabwe. An edited version of this interview appeared in the Liverpool Echo and Liverpool Daily Post but I've included the full length version here.

In a sporting world seemingly more concerned with money and fame, talking to an athlete who not only has a political conscience but also the will and conviction to risk his life for his beliefs is a rarity indeed. To meet one as humble, modest and inspiring as Henry Olonga only increases the impression you’ve met a pretty special person.

In 2003 Zimbabwean cricketer Henry Olonga made a decision that was to change both his life and career in ways that he is still finds difficult to comprehend. Prompted by his captain Andy Flower’s disgust at the torture of opposition MP Job Sikhala, the two internationals decided to make a stand against the Zimbabwean government at that year’s World Cup by donning black armbands and releasing an incredible statement ‘mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe’.

“We were warned, “says Olonga, remembering that fateful day. “People did sit down and explain the gravity of what we were doing but I still had no idea what was going to happen.”
What happened was that Olonga was immediately dropped from the team and expelled by his home club. Then things got worse.

“It was not until after the event and when my father received a message telling him to get me out of Zimbabwe that I even considered the fact that I might have to leave the country or that my life might even be at risk,” he says.

Zimbabwe’s notorious leader Robert Mugabe was far from pleased with the cricketers’ actions and within days Olonga became an exile charged with treason, travelling first to South Africa and then to England where seven years later he remains in limbo, married to his Australian wife Tara but still deeming it unsafe to travel home.

It’s hard not to contrast Olonga’s fortunes with those of Flower, who after retiring from international cricket continued to play first class cricket with Essex and now successfully coaches the England team. Olonga who has reportedly not always got on with his former captain agrees his treatment has been harsh.

“You’d have to ask Andy if he had similar threats to me. He’s never told me but what you’ve got to understand is that Andy is a legend in Zimbabwe whereas I was just an average player really. I think most people would agree though that I’ve borne the brunt of the outcry.”

Throughout his problems Olonga has always relied on his strong religious faith to provide answers and guidance and he now regularly speaks to Christian groups about his beliefs. I ask him if his actions against Mugabe’s regime were prompted by his religion or a sense of political responsibility and receive a typically eloquent reply.

“For me it is impossible to separate the two. My faith gave me the conscience to make the decision to do what I did. My faith made me feel the political situation needed to be challenged and my faith gave me the moral values to make those judgements.”

It’s a passionate validation of his actions but it’s impossible not to wonder how Olonga feels about his life being defined by his single moment of protest. He readily admits that he was no more than an average international cricketer (he took 68 test wickets) and that much of his fame revolves around the black armband affair.

“As far as it defining my life, you’re probably right and I’m very honest about that,” he muses. “I was never going to be famous or well known for my bowling. Maybe once or twice in my career I hit the heights but not many so I admit that the incident may be why I’m known now and the reason I get media work and give lectures.
“Bear in mind though we had no idea how the world was going to respond or if some people thought we were degrading the World Cup. Yes we knew what we were doing was pretty heavy but we had no idea which way it was going or that I wouldn’t play cricket again.”

Mention of cricket brings us back to the sad story of the Zimbabwean team which for the last five years has lost its Test status and much of the positive ground it gained during Olonga’s playing career. Olonga himself was a supporter of the boycott of tours to his home country and a vocal opponent against Zimbabwe’s cricketing authorities.

“I made a decision a while ago that I wasn’t going to talk about this – I was going to sit back and not do any interviews so not many people have heard my views for a while. For the most part I was opposed to Zimbabwe becoming integrated again because the situation was still so bad.

Inflation was through the roof and the same problems remained but now with the power sharing agreement (between Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai) a degree of stability has returned to the country and there are good people in charge of health and education.”

Olonga is clearly positive about his country’s future and hopes the positivity can extend to the nations cricketers.
“I think the time is right for integration. Would we win every game? No, certainly not but players like Brendan Taylor are only 24 and have played over a hundred One Day Internationals so the experience is there. They need to be at the vanguard of the new Zimbabwe.”

Olonga is in a unique position to cast judgement on England’s current fine form and puts much of it down to his old team mate and captain.

“I don’t know what the winning formula is but I suspect Andy Flower has installed a certain belief. Andy is a tough guy and he won’t wrap his players in cotton wool like past coaches have. If you’re not performing Andy will tell you straight. 90% of success as a coach in any sport is winning respect and he’s certainly done that.

‘“It’s like at the Oscars – Andy is the director but there’re lots of people behind the scenes. The physios and the coaches are like the gaffers or the actors. They all help but Andy is in charge and deserves credit.”

Olonga is full of praise for the current England players. Graham Swann is “a revelation” if “he can stay out of jail” while Strauss is “unrecognisable from the player dropped three years ago. Captaincy obviously does him good.”

As for Olonga’s own career he is proud of certain performances mentioning the six wickets he took against England as a highlight and although he enjoys still playing for the Lashings International XI this year he has struggled with injury.

“The spirit is willing but the body is weak!” he laughs. “I got carried away at the start of the season and tweaked my achilles but it’s just fun for me now. I’ve no interest in coaching.”

Instead Olonga is breaking out into all sorts of other areas. He has already recorded an album of his own music and as his impressive website displays he also enjoys painting and photography.

“I’m at the mercy of whether people enjoy the things I do. If they like my music or my art that’s the direction I will go in. Hopefully my new book will do well otherwise I might have to play cricket again!”

Cricket’s loss could well be literature’s gain.

Blood, Sweat and Treason – Henry Olonga, My Story is available now in all good bookshops.

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