"We lived in a less grand style in Qunu, but it was in that village near Umtata that I spent some of the happiest years of my boyhood and whence I trace my earliest memories." -- Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
Upon my arrival in the Eastern Cape town of Qunu, I quickly understood why Nelson Mandela decided to return here for his final walk home. It still is a serene village nestled amid rolling green hills and winding streams on an elevated plateau of the Transkei. It is a place of vivid wild flowers, red earth, expansive blue skies, and wandering herds of sheep and cattle. Its natural beauty grafts on to the soul. It is still a refuge.
I arrived in Qunu on Sunday, December 7, just two days after hearing the sad news of the former president's passing. As the Assistant Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town, I was asked to liaise with local officials regarding preparations for Madiba's burial and lay the ground work for the arrival of senior U.S. officials. On a personal level, I was also making a pilgrimage of respect to the ancestral home of a man I deeply admired and one who changed South Africa and the world forever.
Ninety-five candles representing every year of former South African President Nelson Mandela's life are lit on the stage in the tent where his funeral service was held in Qunu, South Africa, December 15, 2013. [AP Photo]
As an historic number of world leaders flocked to Johannesburg for Nelson Mandela's official memorial service on December 10, including President Obama, my team and I spent our days traveling between Qunu and its closest city, Umtata, familiarizing ourselves with funeral preparations. As news crews and government officials began to descend, it was clear Qunu would be inundated with a level of activity it never had seen. Local residents opened their homes to strangers and churches helped visitors find all-wheel drive vehicles and gumboots to navigate the terrain. There were fears the system would not be able to accommodate the deluge. But all along the way, people worked hard, pulled together, and demonstrated their eagerness to make the farewell a success.
It rained for five days leading up to the burial. The ground became saturated and everything turned to mud. Despite this, the people of Qunu were undeterred. They were welcoming their beloved "Tata" home. Everywhere I went I was greeted with a smile, a handshake, and the words, "Molo, Sisi" or "Hello, Sister." There was a spirit of South African ubuntu -- or unity -- just as President Obama noted in his moving memorial speech, and I knew all would come together to honor a great man.
When the burial day arrived on December 15, the mood in Qunu was electric. The sun emerged and thousands of people lined the streets waving South African flags and colorful khangas with the hope of seeing Mandela's coffin. There was a mixture of celebration, grief, and excitement as the town prepared to welcome home its beloved son. Ambassador Patrick Gaspard and Consul General Erica Barks-Ruggles led the U.S. delegation and paid official respects on behalf of the American people. They were joined by royalty, heads of state, captains of industry, and officials from numerous other countries, all with their own personal reflections of what Nelson Mandela meant to them. Ultimately, the ceremony was a beautiful mixture of all that Madiba loved; family, country, continent, and friends. It was filled with music, prayers, praise, and freedom songs. A fitting tribute to an amazing life.
The next day, as our delegation departed the East London airport for the journey home, we saw a banner that read "Siyakukhulula, Madiba," or "We release you, Madiba." It was apropos. For a man who gave so much of himself to a country and a world yearning for human rights and dignity, the time had finally come for us to release him. It was time for his final, long walk home. In light of the events of the past month, I was frequently reminded of the strong similarities and enduring bonds between the United States and South Africa. I was also reassured to know that Nelson Mandela had reached his ultimate destination, back to his beloved Qunu.
About the Author: Jane Carpenter-Rock serves as the Assistant Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town, South Africa.