The Transkei continued…>
Alice appears quietly, surreptitiously, stumbling into view from around a bend in the road. Arriving from the South, the first visible building is the old train station, where the old signage lays about the pavement in disrepair. Trains long ago ceased running along these rails and families have converted the former ticket offices and waiting areas to living space.
I have a soft spot for trains, an especially romantic nexus of movement and travel that are host to the jostling and crisscrossing of people’s lives. I strolled along the platform picturing Nelson Mandela as an 18 year old, disembarking here for his first class at the nearby Fort Hare University.
We followed Madiba’s path from the train platform through town to the university. With a special dispensation for entry gained with the help of our Xhosa-speaking friend, Bayanda, we found on campus the Nelson Mandela School of Law, and after much effort, the residence hall that was home first to Madiba and later, in remarkable contrast, to Robert Mugabe. In its time, Fort Hare was the premier university for black African leaders, who came here to be groomed from across the continent. Exams were finishing up; three male students washed a car in the courtyard. This was the setting for the famous photo of Madiba as a young student. I imagined him studying in one of the rooms.
In Qunu, we visited the “sliding rock” where Madiba played as a child. A path is worn from top to bottom, which we followed on chair backs severed from their base. It reminded me of the kids at my university that would slide down the grass berm on cardboard sheets during football games. The tour guide was working hard to curry favor from Bayanda, whom he claimed was his soulmate.
We stopped briefly at Mvesi, which is home to the house where Madiba stays when he is in the area. The security guard laughed when I asked if we could enter and told us we were lucky he hadn’t shot us when we drove up.
The highlight of the villages was Emqhekezweni, where Madiba stayed with his cousin Justice under care of the Regent after his father died. At the culmination of 30 km. of potholed dirt and gravel and several stops and queries for directions, stands the original rondavel where Madiba spent most of his childhood before running away for the mines and Johnannesburg. I sat on the hardened mud floor and pictured him taking lessons from the Regent or leaving for his initiation.