Nelson Mandela: son of Qunu returns to the soil

The Mandela family graveyard in Qunu, the small rural village in the Eastern Cape where Nelson Mandela grew up, and where he will return on Sunday.

qunuhills Cattle graze the rolling hills outside Qunu, watched by a young man dressed in the traditional clothing of initiation. As a boy, Mandela also herded cattle here.
(Images: Rodger Bosch, Media Club South Africa. For more images, visit our photo library.)

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Nelson Mandela was once asked what God he prayed to. His answer was at once witty and profound: “That is between me and my God.”

On Sunday 15 December 2013 Madiba will be buried in Qunu, the small rural village in the Eastern Cape where he grew up. The funeral itself will be conducted by a Methodist minister, the faith he embraced while imprisoned on Robben Island. But Mandela was also formed by the traditions of his Xhosa upbringing, so his interment in Qunu will follow Xhosa rites.

Mandela, once a herdboy on the rolling hills outside Qunu, will be buried in the soil that formed the man he became. At his birth his parents, like all parents of his era and tradition, would have buried his umbilical cord in the soil of the family kraal.

Burial in Qunu is not a sentimental gesture. The Xhosa believe the deceased must be brought home to be reunited with their ancestors and to sleep in the ground they were taken from. The philosophy is that life is circular, that you return to the beginning at the end.

Mandla Mandela, as head of the family, will remove all mirrors and pictures of his grandfather from the home. Mark Mandita, education officer at the Amathole Museum in King Williams Town, explains that the removal of the mirrors and pictures are a mark of respect for the deceased. “It’s meant to help usher the dead into the world of the living dead. These rituals are important to the family. The Xhosa believe not performing them will lead to ill fortune and bad omens.”

The tradition of bezila nathi (they mourn with us) requires the family to feed whomever comes to say their final farewell. The meal, prepared by family elders, consists of a slaughtered cow boiled without seasoning, and has to be eaten before any other meal is served. “The meal is for the benefit of the dead, to welcome their soul back home,” says Mandita.

Umkapho, the speeches and prayer that accompany the meal, is a time for the living to pass on messages to the ancestors. It is a period of reflection, when the ancestors are implored to remember the living and to help guide the deceased to heaven. To a large extent, it is a ritual reserved for men. Xhosa custom, the explanation goes, is that there is no need for women as they already know the way to heaven.

Beer, meat and flowers are put out to welcome ancestral spirits, while a burning candle keeps malevolent spirits in the shadows. More traditional families keep children away from the funeral, as it’s believed they are more aware of the afterworld. Madiba will be interred with a blanket or robe and, traditionally, a walking stick or his pipe. The belief is that he is still with us and his afterlife should be comfortable.

The burial is followed, usually the next day, by a ritual dousing with water and herbs to cleanse the mourners of any evil spirits that may still linger. The family will also decide on how long the mourning period, or ukuzila, will last.

“Mama Graça will lead the family in this time,” Mandita explains. As Mandela’s widow she will wear black and be expected to stay at home. When the mourning period ends the women of the family will burn her mourning garments and dress her in new, bright clothes.

This ceremony is called khulula izila (take off from mourning) and, in modern tradition, has become associated with the unveiling of the tombstone. Mandita explains that the two are not the same. “Custom dictates a stone is placed at the head of the grave to identify the place of rest, but this has nothing to do with the end of the mourning.”

The final step in the mourning period is the umbuyiso ceremony, usually held a year after the funeral. This is a celebration of the deceased becoming an ancestor, a spirit with the power to help and protect the grieving family.

“It is when the abathembu bring home the soul,” Mandita says. “A cow is killed and the meat cooked as the deceased enjoyed it. The meal is enjoyed in the home. It’s a celebration welcoming them back to us.”

These rites are important to any Xhosa, Mandita says, even to the educated man who embraces another religion. “For the Xhosa education is measured by the quality of your wisdom. And all wisdom is founded on your identity as abathembu.”