Nelson Mandela's house in the foregound in Qunu.            Picture: Brenton Geach
Nelson Mandela's house in the foregound in Qunu. Picture: Brenton Geach
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton poses for a photograph with Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel at his home in Qunu in this file photo.
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton poses for a photograph with Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel at his home in Qunu in this file photo.

 

Qunu - While behind apartheid prison bars, Nelson Mandela longed for the rolling hills of Qunu, his boyhood stomping ground dotted with homesteads and grazing animals.

It was here, in South Africa's rural hinterland, that the man who went on to shape the destiny of a country took up his first responsibility as a herd boy aged just five.

The young Mandela's days were filled with stick-fighting, sipping warm milk from cows' udders, fishing and sliding down a rocky slope with friends.

Bed was a mat on the floor of one of the three thatched, mud-walled round huts in his mother's homestead. Meals were cooked on open fires with food harvested from the family garden.

“From these days I date my love of the veld (grassland), of open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean lines of the horizon,” Mandela wrote in his memoir “Long Walk to Freedom”.

Qunu, he said in an unpublished draft of the memoir, was “the sweet home where I had spent the happiest days of my childhood.”

It was also where he got his English name “Nelson” on his first day at school, to which he wore a cut-off pair of his father's trousers to replace the blanket that village boys wore.

From his Robben Island jail in 1970, Mandela wrote poignantly of his country roots and said he had never “succeeded in shaking off my peasant background”, despite moving away long before his arrest and conviction.

“Throughout my imprisonment my heart and soul have always been somewhere far beyond this place, in the veld and the bushes,” he wrote.

Describing how “I live across the waves” from his island jail, he pointed to the memories of where he had once tended stock, hunted, played and underwent the traditional rite of passage into manhood.

Mandela returned after 27 years in prison as a free man to Qunu, where his parents were buried in a family graveyard, and found the village's poverty a shock.

He built his retirement home modelled on the familiar layout of the prison house of his last years of incarceration, next to a busy highway along which minibus taxis, buses and cars constantly thunder by.

Hosting guests from talk show star Oprah Winfrey to US former president Bill Clinton, Qunu was also the place where Mandela delighted in throwing huge Christmas parties for local children.

In his final years, he spent large parts of his time in the village, until ill health forced his absence, symbolised by lowered flags at his home.

In his last days, his beloved village was the focal point of a an ugly family feud over the location of his final resting place.

In a legal filing, his ties to the place he left before he was 10 years old were evocatively stressed.

“Whoever reads letters to his family, whoever reads Long Walk to Freedom will find evidence of how Qunu lives in his emotional attachment to his identity,” his wife Graca Machel wrote in a court affidavit.

Electricity, water, tarred roads and brick houses have brought change to Qunu, where he moved from his nearby birthplace of Mvezo.

But the grassy hills where he roamed nearly 100 years ago remain a place of scattered homes and footpaths, where time slows to the unhurried rhythm of village life and tradition.

Echoing his footsteps, children still tend to cattle and sheep. Amusement is a dusty football game or rolling down a hill in a go-kart, cobbled together from wooden planks.

Monuments have been built across the world in honour of the anti-apartheid icon. But there are no statues of him here, just a hilltop museum which celebrates and explores his life.

When home, Qunu's world-famous citizen, like his fellow villagers, fell under the authority of the local chief, a woman whose home lies across from his.

“Even now it's something different for me to go to Qunu... there is a different dimension all together,” he once said.

Sapa-AFP