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Exiled for standing up to a ‘vicious dictator,’ former cricketer Henry Olonga finds solace in singing career

Henry Olonga was at the peak of his career as a professional cricketer when he took a stance that would ultimately force him to leave Zimbabwe.

To many, the idea of standing up to Robert Mugabe’s autocratic political leadership was too perilous, the risk too great. But Olonga was acutely aware of life beyond bowling a cricket ball at 90 mph: he enjoyed singing, drama, and art, and was just beginning to discover his political voice.

“I didn’t want to be just a cricketer, just a fast bowler, because I was never wired that way,” Olonga tells CNN Sport.

By 2003, having grown increasingly disillusioned with Zimbabwe’s late former president, the then-26-year-old Olonga and teammate Andy Flower chose to wear a black armband for the country’s World Cup game against Namibia, highlighting what the pair called “the death of democracy” under Mugabe.

February 10 marks the anniversary of the protest in 2003, an event that ultimately forced both men into exile from their homeland.

Flower would go on to finish his playing days in England before embarking on a long and successful career as an international coach. He briefly returned to Zimbabwe last year, but Olonga, the country’s first ever Black cricketer to play for the national team, says that he isn’t yet ready to take that step. Some wounds are slow to heal.

“I never go where I’m not invited and I don’t stay where I’m not wanted,” says Olonga, speaking from his home in Adelaide, Australia. “It’s become a bit of a personal motif of mine. And if I get the perception that I’m still not wanted in Zimbabwe, you bet your bottom dollar I ain’t going.”

Olonga wears a black armband during the 2003 Cricket World Cup. - Alexander Joe/AFP via Getty Images
Olonga wears a black armband during the 2003 Cricket World Cup. - Alexander Joe/AFP via Getty Images

These days, Olonga is more concerned with pursuing his career as a singer.

A talented choirboy in school, he has performed at all manner of venues – pubs, gala dinners, churches, retirement villages, schools, universities – and received a surge in popularity after appearing on The Voice Australia in 2019.

“I see myself doing the music till the day I die,” he says, adding: “For me, it’s a passion. It really is … I want to sell music to people and get paid, but ultimately, I like to perform and I love bringing pleasure to people.”

His career as a fiercely quick bowler now seems a lifetime ago, so too the way in which it ended and his subsequent treatment in his country.

The emotions, though, are still raw: after the World Cup protest, Olonga explains how he was “vilified” as a “rebel” and “controversial figure” in Zimbabwe.

“The sadness comes from the fact that the very people I was trying to help, represent … saw me as the enemy,” says Olonga.

He received death threats following his public show of dissent but remains unsure if he was ever formally charged by the government with treason, which is punishable by death in Zimbabwe.

Forced into temporary hiding, Olonga managed to flee Africa and start a new life in England.

“I found it bizarre that a lot of people didn’t see that what I did was to my own hurt for their benefit,” he says. “At least, I was hoping that I was representing the voiceless or the people who couldn’t speak out for themselves, or the people who didn’t have a platform, only for that to be thrown back in my face.”

Olonga’s view of Mugabe’s rule had evolved in the years leading up to the World Cup in 2003. Throughout most of his schooling in the 1980s, he believed Zimbabwe’s then-leader to be a hero who fought against White minority rule and helped to give Black people the vote.

“To my young mind, he was one of the legends of the political changes that came into Rhodesia and enabled Zimbabwe to be the nation it became,” says Olonga.

However, it was after meeting, and later befriending, human rights lawyer David Coltart – who would go on to become Zimbabwe’s minister for education, sport, arts and culture – that Olonga says he first heard Mugabe described as a dictator, and from that moment, he became more inquisitive.

“I really did feel hoodwinked,” he adds. “I’d been convinced that Mugabe was this liberation war hero, only to find out that in actuality, he was a vicious dictator who was happy to stop at nothing to hold onto power and get rid of opponents.”

Olonga appeals for a wicket against India in 1999. - Max Nash/AP
Olonga appeals for a wicket against India in 1999. - Max Nash/AP

Following a guerrilla war in 1980 which led to Zimbabwe’s independence, Mugabe came to power and mounted a brutal crackdown against his opponents, notably as his government was accused of killing tens of thousands of ethnic Ndebele people during the Gukurahundi massacres.

Mugabe consolidated his leadership in 1987 – assuming the office of president and head of the armed forces – and maintained power with the support of the army and through a series of controversial elections.

But in the 1990s, the country’s economy began to spiral following the amendment of laws which allowed the government to purchase land for resettlement and redistribution.

As hyperinflation gripped Zimbabwe, Mugabe gave his blessing in 2000 for roving bands of so-called war veterans to embark on often-violent seizures of hundreds of White-owned farms they claimed had been stolen by settlers.

Many of the farms were then turned over to Mugabe’s cronies, who subsequently did not harvest the land, further contributing to Zimbabwe’s economic collapse.

It was against this backdrop that Olonga and Flower decided to undertake their black armband protest.

“Staying silent wasn’t going to be an option for me in the face of some of the grim realities that a lot of Zimbabweans faced,” says Olonga. “Farm invasions, human rights violations, corruption, mismanagement, all of that. And you had a young man who was just fed up.”

Mugabe attracted both fierce criticism and loyal support throughout his 37-year rule, which ended when he was forced out of power in 2017, two years before his death.

Olonga’s stance against Mugabe came at huge personal cost. He continued to play cricket for an invitational team in England after leaving Zimbabwe, but his eight-year professional career came to an end.

Flower (left) and Olonga were both exiled from Zimbabwe following their Cricket World Cup protest. - Howard Burditt/WS/Reuters
Flower (left) and Olonga were both exiled from Zimbabwe following their Cricket World Cup protest. - Howard Burditt/WS/Reuters

He labels his bowling “a bit loose, very erratic and somewhat inaccurate,” though such a description underplays the speed of Olonga’s right-arm deliveries, as well as many of his career achievements: 30 Test matches, 50 one-day internationals, and best figures of six wickets for 19 runs in a 50-over match against England in 2000.

There were lows, too. When he made his debut for Zimbabwe against Pakistan in 1995, what should have been an occasion for celebration ended in embarrassment after an 18-year-old Olonga was called for throwing.

In cricket, a bowler’s action is deemed to be illegal if the elbow is straightened by more than 15 degrees between the point at which the arm is horizontal and the ball is released.

That immediately drew derision from fans, and Olonga subsequently spent time at academies in India, Australia, and South Africa to reshape his technique and escape the stigma of being a “chucker” – a term applied to those called for throwing.

“It would be a terrible story for the first Black player [on Zimbabwe’s national team] to fail so miserably at the first hurdle,” he explains.

Shortly before his debut – he was also Zimbabwe’s youngest-ever international cricketer – Olonga had been offered a scholarship at a music and dramatic arts academy in London.

At the time, he was advised that there was scope for young, Black singers to land roles on the West End, and he says that he “seriously considered” the opportunity until cricket took over.

In the meantime, Olonga tried to keep up his singing alongside playing cricket, but soon found that the two pursuits didn’t sit well together, particularly in a male-dominated sport.

“It’s kind of in people’s perception of masculinity … it was never embraced,” he says. “I think also to a lot of people, it maybe comes off as a bit tacky or cheesy.”

Today, he has found a way to incorporate singing happily into his life.

“Music is very therapeutic to the soul. Hopefully, for the person listening, and, hopefully, for the performer,” says Olonga.

“I think I’m now at a place where I can make people feel something. I’m not going to say I’m a master of my craft, but I’m pretty sure of what I can do and what my limits are. It’s enjoyable for me as well in that it’s a beautiful outlet for me to express myself.”

Olonga says that he’s sitting on “20 years’ worth” of music to release and plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign – “I’m a broke musician, a broke singer, broke author, broke everything,” he adds – to fund his ambitious project of performing with an orchestra.

But he has few complaints about his current life. Now settled with his wife and two daughters in the South Australian city of Adelaide, Olonga enjoys playing sports, painting and sketching, on top of his singing.

His cricket-playing days behind him, he’s recently launched a podcast and started competing in javelin and shot put at local track and field events.

Those were sports that Olonga enjoyed growing up but had neglected during his time as a professional cricketer, a period on which he now reflects with conflicting emotions.

“I look at it with fondness,” he says. “I had some great moments. We as a team had some amazing triumphs. But it was bittersweet for me at the end.

“Now, I’m creating new memories in a new sphere and a new world, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it … I’ve found peace here.”

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