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Aka Rolihlahla, Dalibunga, 46664, and Madiba

/ 12:28 AM December 12, 2013

One of my favorite autobiographies is “Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela, published in the 1990s after he came out of 27 years in prison (where he was known as 46664) and rising to become the first black president of South Africa.

Madiba, as Mandela is also fondly called, died last week at the age of 95.

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“Long Walk” is an awesome sweep spanning the generation before Mandela was born, to his walk to freedom and greatness, with so much in between—the struggle against apartheid—that is well known to the world.

But it is Part 1 (of 11), “A country childhood,” that fascinated the child in me. Here lay the seed of the great tree and the freedom fighter that he would later become.

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Let me walk the reader through it, with little interference.

“Apart from life, a strong constitution, and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlahla. In Xhosa, Rolihlahla means ‘pulling the branch of a tree,’ but its colloquial meaning more accurately would be ‘troublemaker.’

“My father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a chief by both blood and custom. He was confirmed as chief of Mveso by the king of the Thembu tribe, but under British rule, his selection had to be ratified by the government…

“When I was not much more than a newborn child, my father was involved in a dispute that deprived him of his citizenship at Mveso and revealed a strain in his character I believe he passed on to his son. I maintain that nurture, rather than nature, is the primary molder of personality, but my father possessed a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness, that I recognize in myself….

“We lived in a less grand style in Qunu, but it was in that village near Umtata that I spent the happiest years of my boyhood and whence I trace my earliest memories.”

Autobiographies of great persons make for great reading, but it is not always the earthshaking portions that shake me. It is their hidden existence before they made their way into public life that I love reading about. How did it all begin? To get biblical about it, could anything great come out of Nazareth?

“I was no more than five when I became a herd-boy, looking after sheep and calves in the fields. I discovered the almost mystical attachment that the Xhosa have for cattle, not only as a source of food and wealth, but as a blessing from God and a source of happiness. It was in the fields that I learned how to knock birds out of the sky with a slingshot, to gather wild honey and fruits and edible roots, to drink warm, sweet milk straight from the udder of a cow, to swim in the clear, cold streams, and to catch fish with twine and sharpened bits of wire. From these days, I date my love of the veld, of open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon…

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“I was seven years old, and on the day before I was to begin, my father took me aside and told me that I must be dressed properly for school. Until that time, I, like all the other boys in Qunu, had worn only a blanket, which was wrapped around one shoulder and pinned at the waist. My father took a pair of his trousers and cut them at the knee. He told me to put them on, which I did, and they were roughly the correct length, although the waist was far too large. My father then took a piece of string and cinched the trousers at the waist. I must have been a comical sight, but I have never owned a suit I was prouder to wear than my father’s cut-off trousers.

“On the first day of school, my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name, and said that from thenceforth that was the name we would answer to in school… The education I received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture, British institutions, were automatically assumed to be superior. There was no such thing as African culture. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why she bestowed this particular name upon me I have no idea.”

Mandela described the rite to manhood (which covers several pages) in colorful detail: “At dawn, when the stars were still in the sky, we began our preparations. We were escorted to the river to bathe in its cold waters, a ritual that signified our purification before the ceremony… Circumcision is a trial of bravery and stoicism, no anesthetic is used; a man must suffer in silence…

“Without a word, he took my foreskin, pulled it forward, and then, in a single motion, brought down his assegai. I felt as if fire was shooting through my veins, the pain was so intense that I buried my chin into my chest. Many seconds seemed to pass before I remembered the cry, and then I recovered and called out, ‘Ndiyindoda!’ (I am a man!)

“I was given my circumcision name, Dalibunga, meaning ‘Founder of the Bunga,’ the traditional ruling body of the Transkei. To Xhosa traditionalists, this name was more acceptable than either of my two previous given names, Rolihlahala or Nelson…

“After the ceremony, I walked back to the river and watched it meander on its way to where, many miles distant, it emptied into the Indian Ocean. I had never crossed that river, and I knew little or nothing of the world beyond it, a world that beckoned me that day. It was almost sunset and I hurried on to where our seclusion lodges had been… When I reached the area, all that remained were two pyramids of ashes by a large mimosa tree. In these ash heaps lay a lost and delightful world, the world of my childhood, the world of sweet and irresponsible days at Qunu and Mqhekezweni. Now I am a man, and I would never again play thenti, or steal maize, or drink milk from a cow’s udder. I was already in mourning for my own youth…”

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TAGS: “Long Walk to Freedom”, Apartheid, Madiba, Nelson Mandela, South Africa
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