News / Africa

With Sacred Sticks and Leopardskins, Mandela's Adoptive Family Prepares for Funeral

Across South Africa's Eastern Cape - home to Nelson Mandela's boyhood village of Qunu - shops and houses are painted with his nickname "Madiba" and blurred by heavy rains, which in his culture means a great man has passed. (Hannah McNeish for VOA)
Across South Africa's Eastern Cape - home to Nelson Mandela's boyhood village of Qunu - shops and houses are painted with his nickname "Madiba" and blurred by heavy rains, which in his culture means a great man has passed. (Hannah McNeish for VOA)
Hannah McNeish
— At his burial on Sunday, Nelson Mandela will be mourned as one of the world's greatest statesmen and South Africa's most famous export. But in a remote village near his homeland in the Eastern Cape, he will be grieved as royalty. It's here that Mandela spent 10 years as the adopted son of a king to the Thembu clan, and developed a close and lasting bond to the king's family.

Mandela arrived in the village at age nine to be a ward of Thembu King Djokintaba after losing his father in the nearby village of Qunu. He was known for always being serious, having the look of a leader and growing close to the king through his special chore of ironing all his robes.

Djokintaba named him “Tatomkhulu,” meaning grandfather, raised him alongside his two children and, along with his son Justice, to be a counselor, before the boyhood pals both fled arranged marriages to Johannesburg.

But for Chief Zanomethetho Mtirara - Justice's grandson - Mandela became a true grandfather when his own died, taking time out of fighting apartheid to ensure his royal relatives were taking care of themselves.

Mtirara - who was a student when Mandela was released from prison in 1990 - was desperate to see the man he adored, but hid from him for years for fear of recriminations over his dreadlocks and incomplete studies.

When they ran into one another during a village visit in 1999, he recalls the verbal and very public lashing Mandela gave him for not spending enough time at home, and how he treasured the attention.

“When finally I was given a chance to speak, I said to him, 'you know what Madiba? I want to shake your hand, for all you were angry about outside," he said. "Because for me, it showed that you really cared about me.'”

Chief Zanomthetho Mtirara poses with his leopard skin and a young picture of his adoptive "grandfather" Nelson Mandela, who was taken in by the Thembu royal family at the age of 9 when his father died.Chief Zanomthetho Mtirara poses with his leopard skin and a young picture of his adoptive "grandfather" Nelson Mandela, who was taken in by the Thembu royal family at the age of 9 when his father died.
x
Chief Zanomthetho Mtirara poses with his leopard skin and a young picture of his adoptive "grandfather" Nelson Mandela, who was taken in by the Thembu royal family at the age of 9 when his father died.
Chief Zanomthetho Mtirara poses with his leopard skin and a young picture of his adoptive "grandfather" Nelson Mandela, who was taken in by the Thembu royal family at the age of 9 when his father died.
On Sunday, Mtirara and the rest of the royal family from the Thembu, a sub-clan of the Xhosa tribe, will be cloaked in traditional animal skins - leopards for chiefs and a lion skin for the king.  To mark Mandela's royal blood, a leopardskin also will be draped over his coffin.

A special stick, known as “umquma” will be placed on top of the coffin among the flowers. It will have traveled from this tiny village to Mandela's home in Johannesburg to collect his spirit, as Thembu culture believes that the dead cannot rest unless their spirit is reunited in this way with their final resting place.

And during its journey, the spirit collector is bound by silence lest he or she break the spell.

“We will take off a branch from here, and fly it to Johannesburg and carry the spirit in that branch, and the person who needs to perform that task, on the way back home, he is not allowed to talk to anyone who is in that entourage,” Mtirara said.

Although the Thembu clan is making sure that the sacred stick and leopardskin will be included in the funeral, they say that South Africa's ruling ANC party and presidency are vying for control of an event that has already been the subject of many family squabbles.

Mandela's grandson Mandla has pushed for burying his grandfather in nearby Mvezo rather than in his boyhood village of Qunu, which is little more than a cluster of houses on a hillside.

But Mtirara remembers Mandela telling him, Mandla and some journalists on a visit to Qunu in 2001 that he wanted to be laid to rest at his earliest home.

“We had to take a drive from the house to the graveside in Qunu where he then answered this question with 'no, this is where I'm going to be buried.' That was Qunu graveside,” said Mtirara.

Mtirara said so many people wanted a part of Mandela that he is now owned by society. For the Thembu people and especially Mandela's adoptive family, though, he was a grandfather, a chief and a royal who took his earliest lessons of leading people to extraordinary heights.

  • A card and note hang on the fence surrounding the Nelson Mandela National Museum, Mandela's former home, in Soweto, Dec. 12, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • A young boy traces the letters on the Vilakasi Street sign outside of Nelson Mandela's home in Soweto, now the Nelson Mandela National Museum, Dec. 12, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • Members of the Harley Owners Group, from chapters in Johannesburg and surrounding cities, visited Nelson Mandela's former home in the township of Soweto, Dec. 12, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • A brass band marches through the streets in front of Nelson Mandela's home in Houghton, Johannesburg, Dec. 9, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • A group of mourners dance outside Nelson Mandela's home in Houghton, Johannesburg, Dec. 9, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • A family takes a photo in front of Nelson Mandela's home, where a makeshift memorial was set up in the street, Dec. 9, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • Mourners left flowers, posters, poems and cards, among other things, at a makeshift memorial outside of Mandela's home in Houghton, Johannesburg, Dec. 9, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • A memorial site set up in Nelson Mandela Square, outside of the Sandton City Mall in Sandton, a suburb north of Johannesburg, Dec. 9, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • Worshipers at the Melrose Hindu Temple during the national day of worship and prayer for Nelson Mandela, Dec. 8, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • People line up outside of the Union Buildings in Pretoria to sign a condolences book, Dec 6, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • Mourners sign a condolences book outside of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec 6, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)

You May Like

Is Air Travel Safe?

Aviation expert says despite tragic losses of Malaysian Airlines flights 370 and 17, industry experienced lowest fatality rate in recorded history last year More

Multimedia 100 Days Later, Nigerian Girls Still Held

Activists holding rallies in Nigeria and several other countries to mark 100th day of captivity for more than 200 schoolgirls being held by Boko Haram More

Chocolate Too Bitter? Swap Sugar for Mushrooms

US food technology company develops fermentation process using mushrooms to reduce bitterness in cocoa beans, believes it will cut sugar content in candy More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Carriers Suspend Travel to Israeli
X
Carolyn Presutti
July 23, 2014 1:21 AM
The United States is prohibiting American carriers from flying to Israel's airport in Tel Aviv for 24 hours, because of rising violence between Israel and Hamas militants. The action was announced on Tuesday, after a rocket fired by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip landed near the airport. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti tells us, international officials soon may have to determine which combat zones are too dangerous for commercial flights.
Video

Video US Carriers Suspend Travel to Israel

The United States is prohibiting American carriers from flying to Israel's airport in Tel Aviv for 24 hours, because of rising violence between Israel and Hamas militants. The action was announced on Tuesday, after a rocket fired by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip landed near the airport. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti tells us, international officials soon may have to determine which combat zones are too dangerous for commercial flights.
Video

Video NASA Focuses on Earth-Like Planets

For decades, looking for life elsewhere in the universe meant listening for signals that could be from distant civilizations. But recent breakthroughs in space technology refocused some of that effort toward finding planets that may harbor life, even in its primitive form. VOA’s George Putic reports on a recent panel discussion at NASA’s headquarters, in Washington.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video US Awards Medal of Honor for Heroics in Bloodiest of Afghan Battles

U.S. combat troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, on pace to leave the country by the end of this year. But on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama took time to honor a soldier whose actions while under fire in Afghanistan earned him the Medal of Honor. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.

AppleAndroid