At Mandela’s Birthplace, the Rain Falls and the Memories Follow

En route to the town of Qunu, where Nelson Mandela will be buried this weekend, our correspondent makes an unexpected stop in the anti-apartheid hero's birthplace

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Schalk van Zuydam / AP

The South African flag flutters at half-staff as people gather after praying for Nelson Mandela inside the compound were he was born in Mvezo, South Africa, on Dec. 9, 2013

The horizontal rain that has soaked Nelson Mandela’s birthplace since his death had turned the road to a rockslide of mud and stones. Just behind the old grass-roof hut where he was born, the car slid, crunched on the ground, and one of its wheels started making a hit-pitched screech. There were two modest mud-walled huts, painted pink with tin roofs and a few pickups sitting on bricks outside. I pulled up, hurried over in the rain, stepped through an open door and found myself in Mvezo’s small village shop. A large woman in a headscarf stood behind the counter in front of shelves stacked with soap, candles, paraffin and beer. She greeted me in Xhosa: “Molo!”

Three other women were sitting on a bench sipping beer. A fourth, her face a picture of a hard and very long life, sat on the floor, her legs splayed, a large bottle of Black Label lager in her hands.

“Is anyone a mechanic?” I said, immediately regretting it.

A man popped his head into the store. “Mechanic?” he asked. “Stay here.”

He returned with a young man in a blue T-shirt, and we introduced ourselves. Mvuyisi Mdudo, 25, was studying tourism management in Cape Town, but had learned about cars from his father.

“People call me Nbu,” he said.

“I think it’s the wheels, Nbu,” I said, “one of the front ones is making this squeak.”

“Disc brakes,” said Nbu. “I can fix it.”

I fetched the car, driving it onto the sodden grass in front of the huts, and an umbrella appeared, which I held for Nbu as he got to work on the wheel. It was going to be a long job, cold and very wet.

“Tell me, Nbu,” I said. “Is it true what they say about the rain and Madiba?”

“In our tradition, when someone is dead and the rain falls, the people think that person is a good person,” replied Nbu. “People are struggling here because of a shortage of rain. So the rain is a blessing. People are happy.”

“What do people say about Madiba now that’s gone?” I asked.

“Nelson Mandela meant everything to people here,” Nbu said. “Madiba is the leading clan in Thembuland, so he was our chief. He was born here, and he did many things of his people. On the freedom side. And on the development side. Because of his name, a lot of things came here: a road, a school, electricity.”

The clouds parted briefly to reveal a view of the green valley: fields of maize and grazing for sheep, goats, cows and donkeys, all circled by a swollen muddy river. I told Nbu that I wondered what Mandela, 95 when he died last Thursday, had taken from being brought up in such a place.

“In Thembuland, all of us, we discuss everything, the chiefs always consult,” said Nbu. “He took that to South Africa. He took it around the world.”

“And now that he is gone?”

Nbu sighed. “We have a fear now that Madiba is gone. In the [African National Congress] there is a lot of corruption in front. Now things that we have had when Madiba was alive, we fear we will not get it again.”

Nbu was finishing up so we went to talk in the second hut — a pub, it turned out, where the men drank. Nbu indicated I should talk to one of the 10 or so drinkers, Latyu, and that he would translate into Xhosa.

“Maybe just ask him how he feels about Madiba,” I said.

Latyu seemed to deflate like a stopper being pulled on an inflatable. “I feel pain,” said Latyu. “I cannot see him. I am feeling pain inside. He is gone forever.”

The men wanted me to buy them a drink but from the look of them, I wasn’t sure we’d be stopping at one. So I paid for a round, and Nbu and I walked back to the store. As I walked in, the old woman on the floor hit me sharply on the ankles with a stick.

“She is really old,” said Nbu. “Mandela was behind her by three years.”

“That makes her 98,” I said.

The old woman’s name was Nonhoboty Mrebelele. She didn’t talk so much as wail and bellow. “I saw Mandela for his birthday!” she said. “I am feeling pain! He did good things for this village! Mandela did good things!” She looked at my muddy shoes and wet clothes. “This rain is his blessing!” she declared.

“She must have known Madiba growing up,” I said. “Can you ask her how he was as a young man?”

“He was handsome,” said Nonhoboty. “Even when he was old, he was very handsome.” For a moment she was lost with her memories. “Ah,” she exclaimed. “You’re going to make me cry!”

It was time to go. I shook Nonhoboty’s hand, said bye to the drinkers, and Nbu promised me that he would go home and get warm. As I left Mvezo on the road to Qunu, where Mandela will be buried on Sunday, the weather forecaster came on the radio. It is going to rain in Mvezo until Sunday afternoon, he said. It will rain all day and all night until after Mandela is buried.