Nelson Mandela Returns to the Simple Life of His Boyhood

The patriarch of South African liberation left metropolitan Johannesburg four months ago to put down roots in the rural Eastern Cape town where his epochal journey began. His fellow villagers believe he has come home for good.

Posted: 11/22/2011 12:19 PM EST
Nelson Mandela, South Africa,returns to childhood home

The most honored figure in the Republic of South Africa has returned to live in the humble home of his boyhood.

Former president Nelson Mandela, now 93 and frail, forsook the plush suburbs of Johannesburg four months ago in favor of his ancestral Qunu, a small village in a narrow valley in the Eastern Cape province of the Republic of South Africa. And his neighbors believe he is there to stay.

Ntombi Ntondini, 29, who works at the local community centre, says Mandela doesn’t want to go back to Johannesburg. "He said he wants to die here," she told Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

"The tradition is that you don't abandon your own people, you always come back to your own people because we say you go back to your roots," said Zimsile Gamakulu, 45, who belongs to the same Madiba clan that gave Mandela his familiar tribal name. He leads walking tours from the town’s Nelson Mandela Museum tracing the former South African president’s early footsteps.

The open grasslands and clear streams of Qunu have a special place in Mandela’s heart.

“It was in the fields that I learned how to knock birds out of the sky with a slingshot, to gather wild honey and fruits and edible roots, to drink warm, sweet milk straight from the udder of a cow, to swim in the clear, cold streams, and to catch fish with twine and sharpened bits of wire,” the Nobel peace laureate wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

“I learned to stick-fight — essential knowledge to any rural African boy — and became adept at its various techniques, parrying blows, feinting in one direction and striking in another, breaking away from an opponent with quick footwork,” Mandela said. “From these days I date my love of the veld, of open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon.”

It was with those African playmates that he gained another lesson that proved providential for himself and his nation.

“I learned that to humiliate another person is to make him suffer an unnecessarily cruel fate,” the Nobel peace laureate wrote. “Even as a boy, I defeated my opponents without dishonoring them.”

(Photo: Juda Ngwenya/Nelson Mandela Foundation via Getty Images)

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