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

Photogallery South Africa Bans Travelers From Ebola-stricken Countries

South Africans returning from affected West African countries will be thoroughly screened, required to fill out medical questionnaire, health minister says More

Multimedia UN Launches ‘Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years’ in Iraq

Move aims to help thousands of Iraqi religious minorities who fled their homes as Kurdish, Iraqi government forces battle Sunni insurgents More

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

IT specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about disease More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbasi
X
Scott Stearns
August 21, 2014 9:20 PM
The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls for Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid