Slow journey to Madiba's birthplace

You don't take the gravel road to Mvezo. A gravel path takes you deep into where former president Nelson Mandela springs from, in the Eastern Cape.

The village which revealed the almost forgotten, natural way of life.

I walked through dry and dusty streets, guided by early morning light, and some landmarks that took me to the historic Mbashe River, a view I refused to miss.

Only the slow movement of livestock seemed to compete with my footsteps.

Now the soft morning light cracked beautifully between the clouds as I arrived there.

The forever-flowing river sang quietly alongside the melody of the birds that often fly not so far away - dancing everywhere - before disappearing into their neatly designed nests.

Rolling down the steep hill, the authentic remains of the house where Rolihlahla (the first name given to him at birth) was born in 1918 caught my attention, as these were pointed out by a relative of the Madiba clan.

The texture of the hand-made bricks formed a miniature wall at what had been the entrance to the rondavel.

According to ancient Xhosa belief, an abandoned home should not be destroyed but allowed to keep its original shape.

And now Nelson Mandela's grandson, Chief Zwelivelile Mandla Mandela, has built a homestead over the ruins where his grandfather was born, to revive the original home which was falling apart.

Also visible to the naked eye were the foundations of the other huts which were used for cooking, sleeping or storing food, surrounded by rich landscape and indigenous thorny trees, as well as undocumented medicinal plants.

According to the locals, it could be very easy to ask for salt, water or tea from a neighbour, but hard to find a family who owned a television set or radio.

Mvezo, as birthplace of a majestic icon of freedom and justice, was blessed with fertile valleys and thick forest.

Mandela's father was stripped of his chieftainship by a magistrate after a quarrel over an ox, and failure to comply with orders - costing him his land and wealth.

It was time to make a positive move with his mother - to restart life in Qunu.

In his poem The Blues Is You In Me, Sipho Sepamla once wrote:

When my heart pulsates a rhythm

off-beat with God's own scintillating pace

and I can trace only those thoughts

that mar the goodness of living with you

then I know I've got the blues for howling

Clearly it is quite hard to measure a person of Madiba's nature against nature itself.

Meanwhile Qunu, with its symbolic uneven landscape, in some parts carried a mixture of modern and traditional structures.

The family grave-site, a resting place for the Mandelas overlooked by tall trees, looks onto sheep, goats and cattle grazing lazily in the open fields.

Zigzagging streams and footpaths enter the picture.

The gigantic rockslide where he played, fought with sticks with other boys, knocked over birds and watched his father's livestock is found near a museum dedicated to preserving respect for tradition.

Criss-crossing these villages in search of dignity, at times exhausted, I would drink from the running water and wash my face to stay cool. One Saturday morning a group of about six men carrying sticks approached.

In identical voices: "Mhlekazi (meaning chief) have you lost a cow in this area?" No, was my honest reply.

They gazed at me, set down straight, hands clenched, sticks in upright positions punching the grass, and their serious faces set straight too.

I was struck by the distinct pride and respect for animals while I recorded these fragments of life.

It was June; the cold wind penetrated my jacket and rain started to fall.

I was left with few options - one of which was to shelter unprepared under rocks.

Eventually, after nearly an hour the sky cleared, the herd found its destination, and I did the same.

Sepamla continued:

Yeah I've been howling

clouds have been muffling

and the rain has come

and washed away

these blues of mine

the blues is you in me

In Mqhekezweni, the famous mountain (Julukuqu) stood just a few kilometres away from the chief's residence.

Amazingly, this place is no exception, still focused strongly on rituals, culture, values and tradition - this part had remained largely unaffected by the technological changes and globalisation that occupy our lives today.

In all my returns there, I sensed stillness and a Godly presence I struggled to find elsewhere in the country.

In the capital of Thembuland (where Mandela grew up after the death of his father), an isolated rondavel he shared with Justice Mthikrakra, son of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, was a meaningful example of a living legacy.

Inside this house, which stood firmly next to the main rectangular property, I identified a number of very old but valuable books collecting dust.

Most were published in the early 1940s by both local and international authors.

One book I picked up from the pile, which Mandela's guardian had read, was written by Joseph Parker, and titled: Studies In Texts (Vol IV). It focused mainly on family, church and school.

Each book proved well worth getting to know. The shelf that housed these writings told its own silent story - the story that could lead to another story.

In the yard, the powerful twin gum trees that created shadows for Madiba and the tribal elders maintained their majestic presence. The roots spread confidently towards a large garden and the kraal.

On the other side of the fence, a white stucco church and former school was part of the buildings that governed his life long before the dreary 27 years he spent on Robben Island.

Fortunately the prison walls could not deny his dream and vision to free South Africans from the chains of apartheid.

If at all there could be a human being on the planet today close to the Lord himself, it should be Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.




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