God saved me from Robert Mugabe’s thugs
Former cricketer Henry Olonga recalls his miraculous escape from Zimbabwe
Former Zimbabwe cricket international and The Voice contestant, Henry Olonga, believes God saved him from being arrested, or killed or “disappeared” in the aftermath of his “black armband” protest against the late dictator, Robert Mugabe, in 2003.
And he believes he wasn’t saved just so he could live the rest of his life in peace but because God had a plan to use him to shine a light into the world’s darkness.
The first black Test cricketer for Zimbabwe, Olonga was threatened with death after he joined team member Andy Flower in wearing a black armband – symbolically grieving the death of democracy in Zimbabwe – during a World Cup cricket match.
“I remember reading Isaiah 1:17, which says contend for the widow and the orphan, rebuke the oppressor.”
It was a pivotal moment for the young fast bowler, whose Christian conviction and a growing political awareness motivated him to make the stand against the brutal regime of the dictator Mugabe, who died last Friday, aged 95.
“Scripture spoke to me. I remember reading Isaiah 1:17, which says contend for the widow and the orphan, rebuke the oppressor,” Olonga tells Eternity.
“Until that point, I think I was just a sportsman who played cricket for the love of it and the passion, and the desire to achieve…
“But I was starting to become politically aware of Zimbabwe’s precarious political situation … with the farm invasions that were starting to kick off in the late ’90s, with the historical abuses, human rights abuses that had happened with Robert Mugabe sending his militia into the area that I grew up in called Matabeleland, and slaughtering people, hundreds of thousands, they think…
“You put all that together, plus corruption, mismanagement, looting of public services. All of that got this 25, 26-year-old thinking, ‘crumbs, what’s going on in my country?’”
With the confidence of Scripture behind him – and the example of David standing up to Goliath – Olonga says he believed God was with him in his protest – “This was a mandate from God.”
He knew the risk but believed “this was something God had placed in me.”
‘I think by nature I’m not that selfless, honestly… I don’t think I would want to sacrifice my life and comfort for the sake of a cause.”
“I didn’t know what the regime would do but they could put me in prison, they could kill me, they could disappear me.”
Olonga was not only dropped from the team after his black armband protest but he and Flower were accused of being British-paid spies. Then the death threats started coming. And the only way to escape the country was if Zimbabwe won or drew against the World Champions Pakistan after which the team could fly to the next match in South Africa.
“Before that final match I knew my life was hanging in the balance, potentially. I didn’t know what the regime would do but they could put me in prison, they could kill me, they could disappear me – there’s many things that they could have done. So, long story short, I said a wee prayer the night before we got to the ground.
“It was very theologically complicated,” he jokes. “I said ‘God, help!’
“Perhaps the fact that my life was preserved on that occasion was a sign that God was with me.”
As a cyclone off the coast of Mozambique moved westward 800 kilometres inland overnight, the next day it rained long enough that the game was abandoned. With the longed-for result of a draw, Olonga was able to escape, with the rest of his side, to South Africa.
“Perhaps the fact that my life was preserved on that occasion was a sign that God was with me,” Olonga surmises.
He went into hiding but was tracked down as strangers “came from left, right and centre, coming out of nowhere” to rally around and help him, offering air tickets, job opportunities and accommodation.
“Someone had heard my story and they finally managed to track me down, I was in hiding but they found me. And they just wanted to help me and, in any case, they flew me out of South Africa to relative safety in England.”
“I try to live my life in the wonder of the adventure of living with a God who wants to do things through you.”
Olonga was filled not only with gratitude for all the people who assisted him and God for preserving his life, but also a sense of mission and knowledge that God had a plan for his life.
“It wasn’t just, ‘okay, I’ll save you here and then that’s it, live your life in peace.’ It was more ‘the reason I’ve gone to this extent to save you is because I’ve got a plan for your life’ he explains.
“That made me pay attention. So therefore I try to live my life in the wonder of the adventure of living with a God who wants to do things through you… I’m very mindful of that.”
The Adelaide-based singer, motivational speaker and ambassador for Anglican Aid didn’t always live God’s way. Although he heard the gospel many times while attending a Christian boarding school in Zimbabwe, the claims of Jesus only reached through his defences when he attending a youth camp at the age of 16.
“Of course, you can get anaesthetised to the message if you hear it that often… it’s a double-edged sword. But I was always intrigued by the story of the creation, of the creator and Jesus coming to Earth as a baby, and him living a sinless life and dying for my sins on a cruel Roman cross – I got that, I understood God’s justice, I understood God’s love, I understood God’s mercy, his grace.”
“From that moment on, I’d always wanted to live a life that reflected what I said I believed.”
But he can still quote from the sermon he heard while at the youth camp, as the preacher addressed the legal case against humanity as set out in the book of Romans – that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life, and that all who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
“On that occasion, I was ready and I understood what was at stake,” he recalls. “Ultimately, I just got it on that day and I converted.
“I guess, from that moment on, I’d always wanted to live a life that reflected what I said I believed. The Bible seems to suggest that Christians ought to behave a certain way, for example, parable of the Good Samaritan. If you see your fellow man in distress, you ought not to walk on the other side of the road as if it’s got nothing to do with you. You really ought to be a neighbour to someone you see in distress – and that might mean, in his day, that you bandage the person up and you put oil on their wounds or whatever and you take them to a hospital. Or, it could be you hear the cry of the oppressed in your own nation and you speak out.”
“It could be you hear the cry of the oppressed in your own nation and you speak out.”
At boarding school, as well as discovering his natural ability to run fast, which translated into success in athletics, rugby and cricket, he also caught the singing bug. Despite an inauspicious start as an “ugly looking” girl in Oklahoma!, he went on to star in many school musicals, even taking the principal role of Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance – a pioneering feat for a black person in those days. But it wasn’t until he retired from cricket in 2003 that he began to seriously pursue singing opportunities for his rich tenor voice.
Believing in living life to the fullest, he is also a keen photographer and visual artist. His other roles include stay-at-home dad to two young daughters, preaching to prisoners through a charity called Second Chances SA in South Australia and sharing his testimony in schools.
“‘Well, if I’ve got a so-called God given talent for singing, perhaps this is a door he’s opening.’”
Earlier this year, Olonga accepted an invitation to go on The Voice because it seemed to be a door that God was opening.
“I’d been singing for quite a long time since retiring and so, there were some songs that I knew that I could do well and if I was allowed to showcase those songs, who knows, why not? I’m 42 – I was at the time, I’m now 43 – but you know, I was thinking to myself ‘at 42, I’m not getting any younger. If you want to get some kind of exposure as a singer, how will people get to know who you are if they never hear you sing?’ So, I had this big battle between half of me saying, ‘no, it’s just reality TV, it’s manufactured, it’s blah blah blah’ – all the things that these shows are accused of. And on the other hand, me thinking, ‘well, if I’ve got a so-called God given talent for singing, perhaps this is a door he’s opening.’”
As viewers may recall, Olonga turned three chairs in the blind auditions, and got through the knock-out stage – despite the embarrassment of blanking on stage and forgetting his lyrics – after he gave it another crack at the urging of coach Kelly Rowland.
“That was a very humbling moment, but it was also a moment where at least I finished well. I do motivational speaking as part of my side gig and I always tell people is ‘it’s not how you start; it’s how you finish’ … I could have given up, but I finished. So, it was a very positive experience and I worked with so many wonderful, professional people.
“You know, I don’t normally play with a band of that calibre and I certainly don’t work with vocal coaches and certainly don’t have beautiful lighting and staging behind me whenever I do my one-man sort of gigs. So, what a privilege, what an honour.”
“I’ve always known that adulation from crowds is empty.”
He says he would consider going on the show again next year because the talent in the group he was in was exceptional. Not that winning the elusive $100,000 prize is the motivator.
“Winning The Voice or being in the top 10 or being in the top 16 or 20 doesn’t do anything for me. I’m not a young teenager wanting to be famous. I’ve had a taste of that and I know how illusory it is. I know it’s not real. I could grow my fan base to a million Twitter followers, it won’t make me any better or worse as a person. It just means I’m just a bloke with a million more followers, that’s all.
“Whatever it is, I want to remembered as a person who gave his all in everything he put his hand to.”
“I’ve always known that adulation from crowds is empty. I’ve been asked consistently many, many years before, ‘what’s the ultimate achievement in your life?’ And I would say it’s, when I take my last breath and meet my maker and he says, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant, you’ve done all things well.’
“Now, all things to me could be many things. It could be you’ve sung well, you’ve played cricket well, you preached well, you mentored kids well. Whatever it is, I want to remembered as a person who gave his all in everything he put his hand to.
“If I can live a life that I can look back over and say, in spite of my clangers, in spite of my failings, I still have woven a tapestry of a life that counted, that made a difference, and that people can look back over and say good things about… I know that we’re saved by grace, but James says faith without works is dead and so, I want the work of my life to have Jesus shining through it. I know I do that imperfectly, I know that I’ll fail in the future, but that’s where my heart is anyway.”