Some African leaders have lavished resources on their home villages, building palaces and outsize monuments to themselves that look entirely out of place in the poor and remote spots they came from.
Nelson Mandela adamantly rejected such extravagance, and the world will see for itself when he's buried Sunday in Qunu, a simple village set amid the lush green hills in the southeastern corner of the country. It's little changed from the days when Mandela ran barefoot in the fields and herded sheep and calves as a boy nearly a century ago.
"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 cold, clear streams, and to catch fish with twine and sharpened bits of wire," Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. "It was in that village near Umtata that I spent some of the happiest years of my boyhood."
Qunu was, and still is, home to a few hundred blacks who live in modest homes. There are just a couple of paved roads and a few more dirt ones. There's a convenience store and a gas station. There are no jobs here aside from subsistence farming, forcing men to travel to neighboring towns in search of odd jobs.
Aside from a small Mandela museum built in 2000 and a few gravestones that feature the Mandela family name, there's nothing that distinguishes Qunu from thousands of other villages across the continent.
As a result, workers are furiously making preparations for the thousands of VIPs, journalists and ordinary South Africans who have already begun to descend on a village that has never before been the center of such attention. Trucks have been bringing in water, food, portable toilets and steel beams for a 4,000-person pavilion. A bulldozer was flattening the muddy ground for the convoys in Mandela's funeral procession.
For the first time, everyone in Qunu has a job this week as the village prepares for the funeral, says resident Chris Notangala. He and his unemployed friends have printed 500 T-shirts in hopes of making some money.
"Everybody's working. This small town, small as it is, it's become almost like a city because nobody sleeps," Notangala says.
Mandela's Wish: A Modest Burial In Qunu
A hundred miles down the road — and there's only one main road — Vossi Vorster stares out the window of his shop, the Country Kitchen, watching supplies being trucked in.
"You know, the man is exactly what he stood for," he says. "He didn't stand for self-enrichment. He stood for what you see — simplicity. That's what made him so great."
Had he wished, Mandela could have been buried in a much more prominent place, but he insisted on a modest burial in Qunu.
He was actually born in Mvezo, a village about 20 miles away, where his father was a tribal chief in the Thembu clan, which is part of the larger Xhosa tribe. But after a dispute over an ox that cost his father his position, the family moved to Qunu, where Mandela spent most of a boyhood.
Mandela left Qunu to go to college and to avoid an arranged marriage. Thus began an extraordinary journey in which he would become an anti-apartheid activist, the world's most famous prisoner, the country's first black president and one of the most revered global figures of the past century.
In his final years, Mandela reconnected with his roots. He built a small, redbrick retirement home in Qunu. It was modeled after — of all things — the cottage where he spent his final year of imprisonment at Victor Verster prison outside Cape Town.
The prison bungalow was built for wardens, but Mandela was placed there due to his special status and because he was permitted to meet a steady stream of family members, government officials and other prominent figures before he was released in 1990.
Belief In Humility, Equality
Mandela's approach to his home village is in keeping with a man who preached humility and never sought grandiose monuments to himself. Other factors also seemed to be at work.
South Africa's white leaders built apartheid not only on the idea of separating blacks from whites, but also by pitting blacks against blacks. The white rulers established 10 separate black homelands and attempted to make them "independent" states that were not part of white South Africa.
Mandela, meanwhile, insisted that all South Africans, black and white, belonged to one country. Therefore, showing favoritism for any one race, tribe or ethnic group — even his home village — could be viewed as a betrayal of his idea that everyone should be treated equally.
This is in stark contrast to the way some African leaders remade the places they came from. Perhaps the most striking example is the former leader of the Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who ruled his country from 1960 until his death in 1993.
He went so far as to move the country's capital from the largest city, Abidjan, to his hometown of Yamoussoukro. A Catholic, he spent some $200 million to $300 million to build the world's largest church, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, rejecting Pope John Paul II's request that it not be taller than St. Peter's in Rome.
Family United After Debate Over Final Resting Place
In Qunu, residents are wondering whether Mandela's burial site will transform the village into a tourist destination.
There was controversy earlier this year surrounding Mandela's grandson, Mandla Mandela, who lives in nearby Mvezo.
Mandla Mandela is now the family leader, and a few years ago he dug up the coffins of Nelson Mandela's three deceased children — including Mandla's own father — and moved them to Mvezo, the place where Mandela was born.
Mandla Mandela apparently hoped that Nelson Mandela would also be buried in Mvezo, and that it would become a magnet for tourists.
But other Mandela family members vigorously objected, and a court ordered the bodies to be dug up once again and reburied in Qunu, where they now rest in the place that Mandela will be buried.
This week there have been no outward signs of a family rift. Mandla Mandela received his grandfather's body as it was brought from a military hospital to lie in state at the Union Buildings, the seat of the presidency in the capital Pretoria.
Mandela was lying in state Friday for a third and final day as South Africans streamed past to pay their respects. His body will be flown to the Qunu area on Saturday to prepare for the funeral a day later.
Part of those preparations include removing the South African flag that now drapes his coffin and replacing it with a traditional blanket from Mandela's Xhosa tribe, the kind he would have known well as a boy from a small village.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene, good morning. Today is the last day Nelson Mandela lies in state in the capital, Pretoria. His body will then be flown to the Eastern Cape, near the Indian Ocean coast. There, he'll be buried Sunday in a family plot in the childhood village of Qunu.
MONTAGNE: We spoke with the current mayor of that district, Nomakhosazana Meth. She said that like many a great leader, Mandela was shaped by where he came from.
MAYOR NOMAKHOSAZANA METH: The basic foundation of Khayelitsha is home, the family and the surrounding. You know that he grew up as a farm boy looking after cattle. But it doesn't mean when you are coming from the rural area, then there's nothing that you can do.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Gregory Warner is in Qunu now, and sent this report about what remains a humble village.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: I'm walking right now on the rolling hills of Qunu. When I look out, I see cows grazing. I see long-tailed widowbirds overhead. Not far from here, somewhere, is where Nelson Mandela, as a child, used to graze his family sheep. And one gets the impression that Qunu hasn't really changed much since then. It's still a poor South African village, scattered farms.
It's here, of course, that Nelson Mandela chose to build his retirement home. He was born in nearby Mvezo. But for the past week, the peace and the quiet that usually characterizes this village, has been broken.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BULLDOZER)
WARNER: That's a bulldozer, and it is flattening the muddy ground here, in preparation for the military convoys in Mandela's funeral procession. The South African government has been battling time and heavy rains to prepare Qunu for this grand welcome. Thousands are expected to attend the funeral, in a village where the only paved roads are a small one leading to Mandela's home, and another to the Mandela museum.
Outside the town's only shop, a gas station convenience store, I meet Chris Notangala when he tries to sell me a T-shirt. He and his unemployed friends from Qunu have screen-printed 500 of these shirts, in hopes of making some cash. This week, for the first time, he says everybody in Qunu has a job doing something around the funeral.
CHRIS NOTANGALA: Yeah, everybody's working. I mean that the small town, as small as it is, nobody - it's become like a very busy - it's almost like a city but only smaller, because people don't sleep.
WARNER: The lack of jobs here in Qunu and in the nearest big town of Mthatha is an odd testament to Nelson Mandela's style of leadership. Because in so many places in Africa, it's not uncommon at all to see new presidents showering their tribal home base with development money. Mandela refused that gesture. Ironically though, his devotion to an egalitarian distribution of funds means that holding a state funeral in this undeveloped village, in the rain, could be a logistical nightmare.
VOSSI VORSTER: It is chaos there. You know, it's the mud. And it's chaos.
WARNER: A hundred miles down the road, and there's only one main road, Vossi Vorster stares out the window of his shop, the Country Kitchen, watching supplies being trucked in for the funeral. Water, food, steel beams for the 4,000-person pavilion and port-a-potties by the truckload.
VORSTER: I must tell you the amount of portable toilets that would pass by here.
WARNER: It's just amazing that this is the birthplace of South Africa's greatest citizen - one of the world's greatest citizens - and it's so underdeveloped.
VORSTER: Well, you know, the man is exactly what he stood for. He didn't stood for self-enrichment. He stood for that's what you see - simplicity. I mean that's what made him so great.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SINGING)
WARNER: Near the gravesite, three sisters and their mother formed a quartet. They're standing in the light rain singing a song. The chorus translates to: The sun has set; we've lost a good man.
Gregory Warner, NPR News, Qunu.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SINGING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.