Today I attended Sussex County Cricket’s Mark Davis’ Testimonial Dinner at the Grand Hotel.
Nearly 350 supporters and cricket fans were there to give Mark’s Testimonial year a good start. After the usual cricket stories and dressing room humour, a dreadlocked guy stood up and walked to the microphone. He apologised for not indulging in the usual cricket stats and introduced himself as Henry Olonga from Zimbabwe.
After a short introduction to his life, he sang four songs, beautifully. It was unexpected and poignant. Like a flower sprouting in the desert. His version of ‘You Lift Me Up’ was particularly piquant. It was sung by someone who had made a major life choice. Someone who knew that the here and now wasn’t the be and all.
Henry Olonga is an impressive man. Clear of voice, clear of purpose. He stands tall and today he won over a crowd of Sussex business people with his simple honesty and sincere beliefs. He had made a decision a few years ago to not tolerate corruption, oppression and intimidation. He had stood up and been counted. He is still standing, and he still counts.
Olonga was the first black and youngest-ever cricketer to represent Zimbabwe. Yet he was nearly a non-runner before he started. He was called for throwing in a Test in early 1995 and had to start again on his action from scratch. One of the fastest and least accurate bowlers, he had a poor hit rate with no-balls and wides. He also suffered more than his fair share of injuries. However, as a strike bowler he could play with devastating effect as he showed in the 1998-99 tour of Pakistan when he destroyed the Pakistan top-order to engineer a win in the first Test.
Olonga was just 17 when he debuted in first class cricket in the Logan Cup for Matabeleland against Mashonaland, emerging from it with five wickets. He was chosen for the Test team to play Pakistan in 1994-95 when he took a wicket in his first over but was then penalized for throwing. A dramatic remedy was called for. He was coached by Dennis Lillee, who modified his action slightly and the shortcoming was turned into an asset.
From 1998 onwards Olonga became a regular in the Zimbabwe side. Selected for the 2003 World Cup, Olonga made international headlines when, along with Andy Flower, he donned a black armband to protest against the ‘death of democracy’ in Zimbabwe.
This was a brave but foolish act. It would lead to his having to leave his adopted country in fear of his life. He played no meaningful part in the remainder of the competition and could not return to his homeland after the tournament. He fled Zimbabwe and found a new home in England.
Henry Olonga picks up the story in his own words, “Back in 1995 Zimbabwe got involved in a war in the DCR. Things became bad in our country. I was involved in helping an orphanage and began to ask how we got into this mess. I had always respected Robert Mugabe. But I began to hear people speak about him as a dictator and I started doing some research. I found references, for example, to the fact that he had killed some 30,000 of his own people in Matabeleland and the whole thing had been hushed up. I felt a deep, righteous anger.
To cut a long story short, I and another cricketer named Andy Flower decided to make a peaceful protest. We wore black armbands at the 2003 cricket world cup which was taking place in Zimbabwe and wrote a statement mourning the death of democracy in Zimbabwe. As a result I was in trouble.
At that time God proved himself very real. There were threats made against my life by those within the Mugabe regime. I needed to get out of the country – otherwise a mysterious ‘accident’ would happen to me. I called to God.
The day before the final game, we were poised to play Pakistan. If we won – which was highly unlikely – or drew the match, the Zimbabwe team would progress to the next stage of the world cup and go to South Africa and I would escape. So I prayed, ‘O God I need your help’. Unbeknown to me, a cyclone started to brew over the coast of Mozambique. We caught the edge of it and it washed out our game at Bulawayo. We were through to South Africa. The next day the weather in Bulawayo was absolutely fine. You can call it a coincidence, but I believe it was God’s way of answering my prayer.
In South Africa, I was put up by a wonderful family. I later put in my resignation to the cricket authorities in Zimbabwe. I had people still after me. It was just weird. But it was a quiet time in my life. I was on my own. I had left my country. I didn’t know where I was going to go. But God intervened again.
What Andy Flower and I had done was in the headlines. Still in South Africa, I gave an interview to CNN. And it was really through that I was able to come to Britain. I got an offer to come and play cricket in this country if I could raise the air fare. But I had no means of doing that. Out of the blue I got a phone call from a man I had never met before. I was a little frightened of this. Was he really someone who was involved with those who were still after me? He had seen the interview and turned out to be an American, who had been helped out of a very difficult situation in his past, and now had become very rich and just felt that he should help out someone else. He bought me the ticket to Britain.
All I know is that God says, ‘Call on me in the day of trouble and I will answer you’.”
When Henry Olonga entered the room today, the people in the room realised that here was a man who had met a defining moment in his life and had not blinked. As he put it, ‘evil will flourish when good men don’t stand up to it.’ Today, Henry Olonga stood up. Again.
Watch the video below and ask yourself the question, what would you do?
Henry Olonga’s website:
Interview with Henrry Olonga reproduced with kind permission from ‘Cricket at the Cross’ – Evangelicals Now Dec 2008