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Former Zimbabwean pace bowler Henry Olonga will be remembered more for his famous armband protest along with Andy Flower during the 2003 World Cup than for his exploits on the field
BLOODY hell, the year that went by has changed me. Things I used to think were all important just aren’t any more — my career, for example, which previously I’d based my whole life around.

It all started with a phone call. About a month before the World Cup -- sometime in January -- Andy Flower rang me and said he had a proposal. We went to the News Cafe in Harare and he said he’d been reading the paper and there was a story of an MP, Job Sikhala, who had been tortured.

Not only did Andy think it was disgusting that, in a democratic country, Sikhala had been tortured, he was also appaled that it only made the inside story of a national paper. He said someone needed to take a stand. Then he said: “I think that person is you.”

He thought we needed to make some sort of protest, like pulling out of the World Cup. I thought that was drastic, but we mulled it over for a couple of weeks. A third party thought it would be better for us to make a peaceful protest — to wear a black armband. We felt it needed to be accompanied with a statement — with ‘We mourn the death of democracy’ as the punchline.

My motivation was that, two years ago, I had been handed a dossier of human rights abuses that have occurred in Zimbabwe, notably the early 1980s Matabeleland massacres. Up to that point, I’d thought Robert Mugabe was a very fair, true, honest president.

I wouldn’t say Andy was my best friend, but he was my captain for years and I respected him as a player.

How he knew I had the aptitude to make this protest, I don’t know. He needed a black person, and a black person with some influence. I certainly had that: I’d sung a song and people loved it, I was the first black player to play for Zimbabwe, and if I said something it had some weight. Andy is world class, I’m not, but we’d got a combination of sport and music — Posh and Becks, if you like.

"Andy Flower needed a black person, and a black person with some influence. I certainly had that: I’d sung a song and people loved it"

We talked about the repercussions: an ex-special forces person talked to us. He said this is the deal: the worst case scenario is that you could die in an accident. In the end I was more convinced by how right it was to make a stance. I was reading a book at the time about the spirit of man; it said that everyone wants to be like Russell Crowe in Gladiator, to take off his helmet and say: “My name is Maximus and I will have my vengeance,” and so on. I watched that clip so often before I made the protest, and every time I thought: “I want to be the slave who defies an emperor.” Did I do it to want to be a hero? No, but it was then that I thought I can do this.

On the morning of the game against Namibia, we put our kit on, put our armbands on, and then Andy told the rest of our team-mates: “H and I have written a statement, if you want to read it.’ And then the poo hit the fan.

Reactions were mixed but most of the players said later it had taken a lot of balls. Vince (Hogg), the Zimbabwe Cricket Union top dog, tried hard to change our minds. He asked: “Do you realise the consequences?” We said: “Do you know the consequences of us not doing anything?”

Come the end of the match I was worried someone was following me. People had suggested a safe house but I thought: “Olonga makes a stand against the death of democracy... Olonga found floating in a river somewhere” just isn’t good PR.
Vince called us before the next game and strongly recommended not to wear black armbands again. So for the second game — I was 12th man — I wore a black sweatband. Then they said you will not wear anything black that isn’t part of the official kit. So we wore white sweatbands.

We got through to the Super Sixes because of rain, and that gave me a chance to get out of the country and head for the next stage in South Africa. I believe in God, and in a way I believe God sent the rain that day.

I was still in two minds when I packed, but in South Africa a couple of things happened. The first was I got an email from my girlfriend breaking off our relationship. Then I received some threatening e-mails — one guy wrote, “You stupid nigger, I hope Mugabe is going to find you.”

In the morning of our last game at East London I wrote my retirement statement. Back at the hotel I was playing pool when the team manager came in and told me I was not allowed to travel with the players in the bus to the airport. Then he said: “We also think you should pay your own bill for the night” — though eventually he backed down on that. At the airport, my ticket hadn’t been booked.

I stayed in Jo’burg for a month before David Folb (the chairman of Lashings Cricket Club) asked me to play with his club. I got a work permit for six months to come to England, now renewed for five years. I only played about five games before I hurt my knee. Since then I’ve been working on my album. Do I have regrets? Not really. Sometimes I think lots of things have changed, things that I was comfortable with, but I’m glad I paid the price.

Did I change the world? Probably not. Did I change Zimbabwe? Probably not — but I played my part. And if I hadn’t embraced the moment, I could have been a nobody, had a mediocre World Cup, and no one would have remembered. Now I’m remembered as the guy who wore a black armband.

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