Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2013/38 posted by hidden europe on

Rolihlahla was born in Mvezo, moving when he was still a young lad to another village called Qunu which is further north, a little closer to the town of Mthatha. Until he went to school, Rolihlahla wore only a blanket. But on the day before school started, Rolihlahla's father took a pair of his own trousers, cut them off at the knee and insisted that his son wear them to school. Clad in his outsized trousers next day at school, Rolihlahla met his teacher, Miss Mdingane, who insisted that, now the boy was old enough to be educated, he should have a new name.

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Having travelled in southern Africa last month, we recently included a Letter from Africa in our e-brief series. East to Tzaneen was published on 22 November. We saw that as a one-off, but the death this month of Nelson Mandela prompts us to think again of Africa.

Dear fellow travellers

Rolihlahla was born in Mvezo, moving when he was still a young lad to another village called Qunu which is further north, a little closer to the town of Mthatha.

Until he went to school, Rolihlahla wore only a blanket. But on the day before school started, Rolihlahla's father took a pair of his own trousers, cut them off at the knee and insisted that his son wear them to school. Clad in his outsized trousers next day at school, Rolihlahla met his teacher, Miss Mdingane, who insisted that, now the boy was old enough to be educated, he should have a new name. "You shall be Nelson," said Miss Mdingane. And the name stuck. True, there has latterly been a trend, particularly in South Africa, to courteously use the Thembu clan name Madiba, but for the wider world Mandela will always be Nelson.

Life in and around Qunu was simple. Seventy years after he first went to school, Nelson Mandela captured scenes from his early life in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. He recalled the village that we have all seen on our television screens this weekend: "Qunu was situated in a narrow, grassy valley criss-crossed by clear streams and overlooked by green hills."

He wrote of the rondavels with their mud walls and grass roofs. He and the rest of his family slept on mats. Nelson's mum cultivated mealies (maize), which she made into pap or samp. In the evenings, he sat on the hard ground and listened to the elders tell tales of the Thembu people and Xhosa warriors.

The premature death of his father brought an abrupt end to that quiet childhood in Qunu. Young Nelson became a migrant - a quality that was to underpin the remainder of his long life.

He had an extraordinary eye for landscape - just as, indeed, he had an extraordinary capacity for judging the political tide and seizing the moment. Reading Long Walk to Freedom, one is struck that here is a man who could so easily have become a travel writer. It's good, we have to say, that his career took a more political turn.

Madiba will be remembered for many good things: his courage, his tenacity and his seemingly infinite capacity to forgive. But those who know his writing will also celebrate his knack of catching the spirit of landscapes and communities.

Describing a visit back in Qunu in 1955, just after the lifting of a travel ban that had for two years confined him to Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela declared "It's important for a freedom fighter to remain in touch with his own roots. The hurly-burly of city life has a way of erasing the past."

The rondavels of Qunu are smarter these days than there were in the days of Madiba's youth. There are sleek modern highways, but cut off those roads and it's still possible to catch the spirit of a younger Mandela who, on that 1955 visit, relished a "wild ride through the untamed veld."

Madiba knew the rough edges of the South African countryside. And he delighted in the beauty of landscape. On his final day of freedom before his long incarceration, he drove through Natal. In Long Walk to Freedom, Madiba's reflections on the lush green countryside inland from Durban immediately precede his account of being arrested at a roadblock near Howick. Even in his accounts of life during the dark years on Robben Island, landscape is foregrounded: the lime quarry where prisoners work, the wind that blows in off the sea, and later the simple satisfaction of being permitted to cultivate a vegetable garden. For a man who spent more than 27 years behind bars, Long Walk to Freedom is a quite remarkable travelogue. But it takes more than a travelogue to change a nation.

This weekend the world watched as Madiba made his final journey, a retreat from the hurly-burly of the urban Gauteng region to the rural landscapes of the Eastern Cape. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has reconnected with his roots.

Long Walk to Freedom ends with the words "My long walk is not yet ended." Now it is up to others in the Rainbow Nation to accept the baton and continue the country's long walk to freedom.

Hamba kahle Madiba!

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

The cameos from Nelson Mandela's life and the quotes are all taken from 'Long Walk to Freedom', first published by Little, Brown and Company in 1994.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.