Residents of Qunu, where Mandela grew up and will be buried on Sunday, say he was, in some ways, just another villager

Nelson Mandela was on one of his early morning walks here in his rural home village when he spotted an old friend loosening up the soil on his land with a donkey-drawn plough. Mandela contemplated the sight, and although he was President at the time, he promptly and inexplicably took over.

There were no television cameras around, no journalists to capture an Everyman publicity stunt, the friend’s daughter recalled. For about 15 minutes, Mandela simply pushed the plough while chatting with his former schoolmate about his land, his children and their education.

It is something that I never imagined, said Nokuzola Tetani, who watched in 1995 as Mandela, commonly referred to by his clan name, Madiba, took the plough from her father. Yes, Madiba was Madiba. But he was the President.

While people around the world draw their appreciation of Mandela from his life as a freedom fighter and an international icon of the struggle against racial oppression, residents here, where he grew up and will be buried on Sunday, say he was, in some ways, just another villager.

In the years immediately after his release from prison, in 1990, Mandela could even sometimes walk around his village without being recognised, said Richard Stengel, who collaborated with Mandela on his autobiography.

Sure, South Africans share stories of how Mandela was prone to remarkable spells of kindness and openness almost anywhere he went. But at home, back among his rural roots and all its tranquillity, residents said he treated everyone like family and immersed himself in the customs of his Xhosa culture like those around him, to the extent possible for a man living in a walled-in compound amid a sprawl of humble mud-and-brick abodes, many without running water or electricity.

He regularly held feasts at his Qunu home with freshly slaughtered animals, following Xhosa tradition. He had a penchant for reminiscing about the old days and family connections, roaming the open fields (sometimes handing out sweets to children while he walked) and striking up (or rekindling) meaningful friendships. One Qunu elder, Kekana Geledwana, 92, said that after Mandela returned from prison, he so appreciated their distant family connection that they became close friends, and Mandela even took Geledwana on some trips as President.

Mr. Stengel recalled how Mandela often had better success making people in Qunu laugh when he spoke Xhosa rather than English. He always seemed more relaxed there, like he could exhale when he was there.

Given that Mandela died at 95, few people around here can remember his childhood. He was born in 1918 in the nearby village of Mvezo but moved to Qunu, in the Eastern Cape, not long after. When he was nine, his father died, and his mother sent him away to the town of Mqhekezweni, where a regional chief, Jongintaba Dalindyebo, took him under his wing.

For the young Mandela, leaving Qunu was as traumatic as losing his father, he wrote in his autobiography: “I loved it in the unconditional way that a child loves his first home.”

Mandela would never forget this village or the people he met there, residents say with evident pride.

“It was quite overwhelming because when he walked around, whoever he met on the way, he would greet you, he would shake your hand and ask you ‘Who are you and who’s your mother’?” said Ms Tetani, 53, who has spent her entire life here and now works for the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu. And he would remember the people from the village.

Yet things have got complicated here since Mandela’s death last Thursday. The police have blocked off a large portion of the major thoroughfare that cuts through the village. Large military trucks have settled in town. Some locals here and in surrounding villages are capitalising on the flood of visitors by renting out their homes. One woman has set up a food stand across the street from the Mandela homestead. Mandela will be buried next to his former home, near plots of departed relatives.

The tight security here runs contrary to the freewheeling way that Mandela went about things.

In 1995, during his presidency, he started a tradition of holding a Christmas feast at his home. He hosted 500 children at the first one, and the number grew to about 2,000 the last time he held the event, about a decade later. He would sometimes spend up to two hours handing out presents to the children, Ms Tetani said.

One year, she said, Mandela noticed that the food the adults were eating inside his home was of much better quality than what the children were being served outside. He loudly ground the party to a halt and demanded to know why. He was angry, Ms Tetani said, and reminded everyone that the event was supposed to be focused on the children. The room fell silent. No one said a word in response, she recalled. Everyone felt so ashamed and apologetic, she said. The following year, the problem was corrected.

Still, at least one of Mandela’s friends here said he was not afraid to challenge him. Geledwana said he had repeatedly demanded that Mandela explain why Geledwana’s father’s house, which was next to Mandela’s compound, did not have electricity. Mandela never really gave him a straight answer, Geledwana said, but he promised to fix that. Last year, the house finally got electricity.

“I didn’t see him as God,” Geledwana said. He was just a brother to me. If there is anything I didn’t like, I would ask him. — New York Times News Service

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