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Henry Olonga, Zimbabwe's cricketing rebel

By Kate Giles and Tom Hayes, CNN
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Blood, sweat and treason
  • Henry Olonga was the youngest, and first-ever black man to play cricket for Zimbabwe
  • Alongside Andy Flower, he protested against Mugabe's regime in the 2003 World Cup
  • Olonga was forced to leave the country and has now settled in the UK
  • He now plays for a charitable side as well as indulging his other great passion -- singing

Every week CNN's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. This week we profile Henry Olonga, the Zimbabwean cricketer who made international headlines in 2003 after protesting against the Mugabe regime.

London, England (CNN) -- He's the youngest ever cricketer to represent Zimbabwe at international level. He's also the first black cricketer to play for his country. But Henry Olonga's place in history does not rest solely on the brilliance of his bowling.

In 2003, Olonga and team mate Andy Flower donned black armbands during a Cricket World Cup match in protest at Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe's regime.

The gesture was designed to "mourn the death of democracy" in Zimbabwe and it made headlines across the world, turning the international focus on the African country and the plight of its people.

"There were mass graves that were found. There was evidence of abuse; testimony after testimony of the most evil and awful things that can ever be done [by] one human being to another," Olonga told CNN about the deaths in Zimbabwe's Matabeleland in the early 1980s.

Video: Henry Olonga on playing for Lashings
Video: Defying the Mugabe regime

Soon after Mugabe came to power in 1980, his government launched a campaign to crush opposition in Matabeleland. The massacre and beatings of thousands of civilians was little reported at the time.

"My conscience was just ...what kind of country had I grown up in? What kind of country have I represented? Because I'd played for my country, I was an ambassador. I started to become uncomfortable that I was constantly, if you will, protecting, supporting or endorsing the government," Olonga said of the motives behind his protest.

The Zimbabwean government has rejected frequent charges of human rights abuses by Western states. President Mugabe has described the deaths Olonga refers to as a "moment of madness."

Olonga's public show of dissent against Mugabe's regime caused him to be accused of treason --which carries the death penalty in Zimbabwe.

Olonga was forced into temporary hiding before finally fleeing Africa and relocating to England. He hasn't returned to Zimbabwe since. It also brought his international cricket career to an end.

"There was a sacrifice that I had to make, to stand up for what I truly believed in," Olonga told CNN in London, where he now lives permanently.

There was a sacrifice that I had to make, to stand up for what I truly believed in
--Henry Olonga
  • Cricket
  • Zimbabwe
  • Robert Mugabe

Olonga has no regrets, though.

"For one second in time we brought the world's attention to the serious problems that had befallen the country I loved, grew up in, played for and represented at the highest level in my chosen sport and I think that counts for something," he said.

Born to a Kenyan father and Zimbabwean mother, Olonga was born in Zambia. At an early age, he moved to Zimbabwe and soon stood out as a teenage sports prodigy, excelling in athletics.

He ultimately chose cricket, making his Test debut at the age of 18 against Pakistan in January 1995. During his shortened international career Olonga went on to take almost 70 test wickets.

Nowadays, the exiled cricketer plies his trade for Lashings -- an All-Star team made up of retired professionals from around the cricket world that raises funds for a series of charities.

Far from the demanding lifestyle of a professional athlete, Olonga has now more time to indulge his other passions, including singing -- the multi-talented star boasts a rich tenor voice.

He is also pursuing a career as a cricket commentator and has recently released an autobiography, "Blood, Sweat and Treason," in which he explains the black armband incident and the controversy that followed.

When asked whether now, seven years after his gesture of protest, he would do it again, Olonga is adamant.

"Absolutely, absolutely," he told CNN with a smile.

"I'm so grateful for a lot of things that have happened in my life. I've changed as a person, I look myself in the mirror and I have a clean conscience. I know I had the opportunity to stand [up] for people who didn't have a voice for themselves and that gives you a tremendous amount of satisfaction.

"To be able to get up in the morning and say, 'I didn't back down, I stuck through it, through thick and thin, in the name of freedom.'"

Teo Kermeliotis contributed to this report.