Cricket at the Cross
An interview with Henry Olonga
Henry Olonga is a Christian who came to public attention as a test cricketer playing for Zimbabwe and through his protests against the regime of Robert Mugabe. He kindly agreed to talk to EN.
EN: Could you tell us briefly about your background and about playing cricket for Zimbabwe?
HO: I was actually born in Zambia, but, in 1981 when I was five years old, we moved from Kenya to Zimbabwe because it had just gained independence and there was a lot of optimism about the country. I went to a very good boarding school called Plumtree where I fell in love with sport, art and singing. It was here that I discovered cricket. I was groomed as a fast bowler. However, early on in my career I went through a tough time because my bowling action was questioned for throwing. Although that was a tough time, I had been taught never to give up. So I was sent to India, Australia and South Africa where fast-bowling coaches such as Denis Lillee helped me to remodel my action.
I played for about eight seasons at the highest level. I was a raw and erratic bowler. But I was the eternal optimist. My feeling was if I didn’t know where the ball was going, how could the batsman know where it was coming from?! I took 68 test wickets for Zimbabwe and 50 one-day wickets. Those are not amazing stats. But of course I retired at the age of 27 because of various circumstances.
EN: When and how did you become a Christian?
HO: I went to a Church of England school. That meant assembly Monday, Wednesday, Friday and dress up smart for church on Sunday. Church was compulsory and therefore we thought of it as boring and irrelevant. But I do remember one talk when I was nine years old where a lady came and hammered home the message ‘never give up’ in life. That stuck with me.
I also remember receiving a free Gideon’s Bible. When you are an African kid, growing up in Africa, anything for free is welcome! At the back there was a page where you could fill in your name which would say something like, ‘On this day I Henry Olonga gave my life to Jesus Christ’. I filled that in not once, not twice, but three times as a youngster. But I was always unsure that just writing your name really made you a Christian.
As I grew older I thought that being good made you a Christian. But I was uncertain about that. We had preachers who told us the ten commandments. But I was not sure that ‘being good’ was really attainable.
The stars at night
By the time I was 16 I was asking all the big questions in life: why are we here, where did we come from? Atheistic evolution did not make sense. When you see a beautiful painting, if it doesn’t have a signature at the bottom, you immediately ask ‘Who’s that artist?’ Our world is so beautiful. Out where my school was in the rural areas of Africa there is no light pollution and at night the stars are simply magnificent. The sight filled me with awe. I remember thinking, ‘This demands a Creator’.
It was around this time I was invited to a youth camp. There were lots of great sports activities and talks in the evening — some practical about working hard at school, etc., and some spiritual. On the last night a guy got up and shared a message from the verse which says, ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life’ (1 John 5.13). And that had been what I had really been searching for, coming into the experience of knowing for certain that I had eternal life. He started by telling me that I was a sinner. I already knew that. Then he said, ‘The Bible says “Be perfect”’. I knew that was not possible for me.
A free gift
But then came the good news. God is a God of justice. Someone has to pay for our sins. But God placed the punishment that I deserve on his Son, Jesus. He used the analogy of receiving ‘six of the best’. Say you had done something really wrong and had to go and get six of the best from the headmaster. However, one of your mates comes to you and says, ‘You don’t have to take the punishment — I will take it for you’. I had a choice to make I could accept this offer or reject it. He said it’s the same with God. I have a choice to make to either accept this free gift that Jesus was offering me or reject it. So that evening I accepted his gift of salvation, as it is called, and for the first time felt truly forgiven for my imperfections and finally had a sense of knowing that I belonged to God. Ever since then I have called myself a Christian. Throughout my life and my career I’m a Christian first, before everything else.
EN: You had to give up your international cricket career in 2003. Explain the story behind that.
HO: 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.
God who answers
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’.
EN: How did your new career as a singer come about and tell us about your new CD?
HO: I have always loved singing and performing. At Plumtree High School I auditioned for the school plays and in Form 2 won a lead role as Marco in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. I went on to get other lead roles in school plays and had, in fact, auditioned for a scholarship to attend one of the universities in England to study music and performing arts. However, the opportunity to play cricket for my country came along before I got the opportunity to attend.
While still living in Zimbabwe I released my first single called Our Zimbabwe, which somehow went to number one.
Since arriving in England I have been attempting to establish both a singing and an art career and in 2006 released my debut album called Aurelia. It’s an easy listening album with an African touch to it [available via Henry’s website http://www.henryolonga.net]. I am currently working on my next couple of albums and hope to release them sometime next year.
Henry Olonga is available to visit churches, sing, preach and tell his story. You can contact him through firstname.lastname@example.org.