QUNU, South Africa – The rural home where Nelson Mandela grew up in the 1920s had mud walls, a grass thatched roof, and a floor polished smooth with cow dung. When throngs flood Mandela's hometown on Sunday for his burial, they will visit a simple place steeped in old ways but which now has become the center of a massive state operation to honor the anti-apartheid leader.
Construction workers were scrambling to finish preparations for the mourners. On Mandela's sprawling property, workers were erecting a temporary seating structure. Road crews hurried to finish paving a new highway in front of Mandela's home that runs from Qunu, the hometown, to Mthatha, the city with the nearest airport in Eastern Cape province.
Military helicopters flew around the area on Friday, and security forces patrolled roads. Some units practiced drills ahead of a ceremony to welcome Mandela's casket on Saturday after it is transferred from Pretoria, the capital. President Jacob Zuma has authorized the deployment of 11,900 military servicemen to assist police in maintaining order during the funeral service.
Armored military vehicles ring Mandela's fence-lined property. A yellow earth mover smoothed a dirt road behind Mandela's house, near where two dozen cows graze.
Most of Qunu lags the modern world by a few decades. Many houses, painted green, pink and yellow, are one-room structures with tin or straw roofs. Many have outhouses.
Mandela first began to shepherd animals and use a slingshot, around the age of 5, in Qunu. Today, sheep, goats and cows leisurely cross a two-lane highway and smaller dirt roads.
The several hundred residents considered Mandela a neighbor, foremost. On a recent day, Malwande Mazwi strolled with stilted, uneven steps past the fence of Mandela's modern compound. The 24-year-old leaned heavily on two sticks, crutches he's used since he first contracted polio as a child.
Mazwi illustrates how in Qunu, education and health standards lag. Mazwi lives only 100 yards (meters) behind Mandela's back fence line in structures with thatch and tin roofs. His mother, Nothobile Gamakhulu, hopes one day to afford an operation to straighten his legs. First, though, she would like to buy modern crutches to replace Mazwi's simple sticks.
Joshua Mzingelwa is the leader of Morians Episcopal Apostolic Church, right next to Mazwi's house. Dressed in a regal blue robe, Mzingelwa delivered a loud, throaty sermon last week.
"There is still hope in the hardship that you are facing daily," even with the loss of Mandela, he told the congregation.
Mzingelwa said Qunu needs better health and education services. "It's not what we would like things to be," he said, noting that Qunu has only a small, one-room health clinic. But he does not think Qunu, just because it is Mandela's home, deserves more attention than other towns.
As a boy, Mandela watched his father die of lung cancer on the floor of the family hut without even a visit to a doctor.
Mazwi recalled how the former president, when he walked the village's dirt roads in the 1990s, would hand him the equivalent of $10. Like many others in Qunu and the surrounding area, Mazwi hopes to attend the Sunday funeral, but he does not know if he will get inside.
"I'd like to see if his funeral will be as dignified as he was," said Mazwi.
Rolihlahla Mandela attended primary school in Qunu, where the teacher Miss Mdingane, following the local custom to give all school children "Christian" names, assigned him the name Nelson. Now the village hosts a modern school named the Nelson Mandela No-Moscow Primary School, a reference to a Mandela relative, not a snub aimed at Russia.
The town also hosts a Nelson Mandela Museum, where a banner hung after his death quickly filled with tributes.
Mzingelwa, the church leader, spoke of Mandela's generosity. In his younger years, the former president spread charity around the village. At Christmas he would visit homes and give toys to the underprivileged, said Mzingelwa. Some now fear life will deteriorate without Mandela alive.
In his autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela wrote that he believes a man should have a home in sight of where he was born, though that is not literally the case here. Mandela spent his childhood in Qunu but was born in Mvezo, about 10 kilometers (six miles) from Qunu.
Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison during white rule, took some of that experience with him to Qunu. The floor plan of the house, completed in 1993, is based on the house he lived in at the Victor Verster Prison where he spent his last 14 months of incarceration.
"People often commented on this," Mandela wrote. "But the answer was very simple: the Victor Verster house was the first spacious and comfortable home I ever stayed in, and I liked it very much. I was familiar with its dimensions, so at Qunu I would not have to wander at night looking for the kitchen."