06/20/2013 02:47 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

Nelson Mandela, A Long Way From Home

I am standing on the rock that Nelson Mandela says he slid down as a boy when he was tending his father's cattle in this small rural part of eastern South Africa. Mandela played stick wars with the other young boys of Qunu, and when they got bored they sat on a small rock and used it as a kind of sled to slide down the bigger rock, which still juts out of the hillside.

It's hard to imagine what it must have been like. The small village of Qunu where Mandela grew up is so far removed from the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg and even the idea of the international hero he has become. But his memories, as described in his book Long Walk To Freedom all go back to this area where he grew up, the son of a tribal chief.

For Mandela, now ill and nearing the end, it will probably all end here, where it began. After he was released from Robben Island, he returned to Qunu and lived there until he was elected president in 1994. Even then, he had a home here and often strolled through town in the early morning hours with his bodyguards trailing behind.

His grandson is now the village chief of nearby Mvezo, and even though there is now a Mandela Museum perched atop one of the gently rolling hills, the area still retains its unguarded feel, the peacefulness of village life that Mandela probably knew.

Still, there are signs of encroaching modernization and not all of it good. True, most homes now have electricity, a decent water supply and outside toilets, courtesy of the government. But there has also been an increase in cattle rustling and at the funeral of a Mandela relative recently, 96-year-old Florence Mandela, the speaker referred to a series of rapes that have occurred.

The burial site was the family cemetery, a small patch of land near a highway that is overgrown with weeds that sometimes obscure the tombstones scattered about, all with the name "Mandela" carved in stone. The cemetery is enclosed by a flimsy wire fence and visitors often stop their cars by the side of the road to take a look.

It's a local tradition not to speak of anyone dying here in Qunu, but when Mandela's time comes it is quite possible that he will be buried here, with his relatives, in this quiet spot many miles and a lifetime away from what he has accomplished. A great man will return to his beginnings, and it seems right.