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Mandela's village: South Africa's road from Qunu

How Nelson Mandela's home village points to South Africa's future.

Editor's note: This series about Nelson Mandela's home village describes South Africa's past and points the way toward its future. Where tradition vies with modern leadership. Where Mandela was no saint. Where rural poverty persists. Where Mandela’s legacy inspires future leaders.

MVEZO, South Africa — The journey of one of the most extraordinary lives of the 20th century began here in the gentle hills and valleys of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, the pastoral territory of the Xhosa people that sweeps inland from the wild Indian Ocean coastline.

Down a bumpy dirt road in what is one of the country’s poorest regions lies the small village of Mvezo, where sheep and goats graze among traditional round huts and women cook on open fires.

It was here in a hut that the village chief’s 13th child by his third wife was born, a boy who would come of age in a neighboring village and go on to confront the injustice of apartheid, to transcend brutal oppression with dignity and purpose, and in doing so transform his country and inspire the world.

This is the birthplace of Nelson Mandela.

It is here in Mandela’s home village where this country’s history can be seen. It is also where the story of the new South Africa begins, and where many of its biggest challenges can still be found as the country struggles to reach the vibrant and equitable future inspired by its most famous son.

Mvezo village looks much as it would have when Mandela was born in 1918, with expanses of grassy, mostly tree-bare slopes dotted with huts and “kraals” – spindly livestock corrals made of sticks and rocks. It now has electricity and one small shop, but the village’s only water tap is often broken.

In this village and in nearby Qunu, where Mandela spent his boyhood, the history of South Africa and the origins of its greatest leader can be found, as can some of the greatest challenges facing South Africa today – the need for better governance, improved education and modernized living. All are essential for the country to live up to the goal of a free, democratic and non-racial society envisioned by Mandela, who at age 94 is increasingly frail and approaching the end of his life.

When Mandela was still a baby, his father lost his position as village chief in a dispute with a local magistrate, and so the Mandela family left Mvezo, trekking to the neighboring village of Qunu. In this part of the Eastern Cape, as in many rural areas, tradition and traditional rulers still hold sway despite the destabilizing years under colonialism and apartheid.

Mandela spent his childhood in Qunu, and later in life he fondly recalled his days playing in the fields around the village, stick-fighting with other boys and sliding down rock faces. He was also a herd boy, taking care of sheep and calves. After his release from prison, Mandela returned to Qunu and built a country home with a view of the hills.

This is also where he is expected to be buried, in the simple Mandela family graveyard where his parents, sons and daughter were laid to rest.

When Mandela was 9 years old, his father died and after he was sent to live with the regent of the Thembu tribe at his traditional Great Place in nearby Mqhekezweni. Mandela first attended school in Qunu, but it was the regent who sent him to boarding school and later to university.

At that time, it was rare for a black child to attend school. Today, while primary school enrollment in South Africa stands at 87 percent, according to UNESCO statistics, the quality of education in the Eastern Cape is among the worst in the country and relatively few children have the funding, encouragement and caliber of instruction needed to make it to university.

Qunu, while still a rural village, has had the advantage of development around the Nelson Mandela Museum, and there is better infrastructure including some paved roads. The village is also on the main highway and closer to the city of Mthatha, a regional capital bursting at the seams, complete with bad traffic, busy fast food restaurants and a large university campus.

But in Mandela’s birthplace, Mvezo, little has changed. Women cook in cast-iron pots over fires dug into the bare ground, the same way that Mandela’s mother did. The hills of the Eastern Cape are more populated than they were during Mandela’s childhood, but Mvezo remains a tiny, remote village near the meandering Mbashe River.