In the village of Qunu, a small group gathers to watch Nelson Mandela’s funeral on television

The cock crowed soon after 4am and before long, there were sounds coming from the kitchen. Fifty-litre paint buckets were being filled with water for the bathroom and toilet.

Before long, the sun was peering up over the horizon, shining brightly from behind Nelson Mandela’s home, a few hundred metres away across the grassy valley. To the left of his home, we could see the top of the dome-like marquee in which 4,500 dignitaries would descend shortly for the funeral of this tiny village’s most famous son.

And beyond the marquee, there was the tall canopy erected in the graveyard overlooking the village, the place where Madiba would be interred with all the formality and ritual deserving of a former president of South Africa, the man who liberated his country from the evil of apartheid.

There were signs of frenetic last-minute activity everywhere. Helicopters flew overhead, cars with flashing lights made their presence felt. A fleet of buses parked two abreast filled the new road skirting the village and passing Mandela’s home. Elsewhere, the road was lined with soldiers and from across the valley there wafted the sound of a military band rehearsing.

In the valley itself, all was calm – the tiny farms, small holdings really, looking as they always do in the sun. Qunu was where Mandela spent most of his childhood years – “some of the happiest years of my boyhood”, as he wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. It was here that he built his not-insubstantial home after his release from prison and it was to here he liked to come as often as he could while president and later while a global statesman.

The people of the village knew him and loved him. The Soyaya family, my hosts, were no exception.

The Soyaya kraal is one of the more substantial in Qunu. The family do not use the word kraal, however; to them, this is simply home. Behind the buildings is a corral in which, when not roaming freely around, about 60 sheep and seven goats are kept. Some 20 chickens and the cock are also fenced in. Behind the corral is a small field of maize and spinach.

This is the family’s wealth, what they live from.

The land falls away from the back of the houses, sweeping gently into a valley and up again to a new resource centre (a post office, library and government office) and then, a little over to one side, the Mandela home.

I’m standing surveying the scene in the hot, early morning sun when the mother of the house, Momma Soyaya, appears. “The sun of the world – Madiba!” says Nomvula Soyaya (58). “It’s special today for the whole world!” she adds as she closes the gate into the maize patch behind the house and strolls off through the chickens.

Nomvula is the head of a large family and extended family, most of whom live in the home or visit regularly. She has two sisters, Tandeka (53), who normally lives in Mthatha; and Nokuzola (44). The husbands of all three are dead.

Nomvula has two sons, Vuyolwethu (31) and Mvuzo (32), and a daughter, Lindokuhle (24). Mvuzo has a son, Ngazo (6). Lindokuhle has two sons, Yanga (6) and Nkwenkwezi, born on December 5th – the day Mandela died. His name means stars.

Tandeka has a daughter, Gudiswa (27), who in turn has a daughter, Inamandla (2).

Nokuzola has two daughters Zenande (27) and Timmy (20), and a son, Menzi (17). Zenande and her husband live in Pretoria and have two sons, Bonani (6) and Junior (2). Timmy has a daughter, Enkosi (1½).

Just before 8am, the living room begins to fill. The children sit on the rug in front of the television. The grown-ups – including some family friends and neighbours – pile in. They watch as a military guard of honour starts the slow march from Mandela’s home to the marquee. The guard of honour is followed by an army band, its members dressed in bright red uniforms. And behind them comes the coffin on a gun carriage and draped in the South African flag, flanked by officers of the army, navy and air force. As the procession moves forward, its pace quickening, an artillery battery fires salutes.

In the Soyaya bungalow, the grandchildren play in front of the television not fully appreciating the great event taking place but a few hundred metres away across the valley.

The coffin enters the dome and is placed at the front of the congregation, before a large image of the late president and 95 candles, one for each year of his life. There’s an intake of breath when Graca Machel is shown. Mandela’s widow is respected for the way she tended him in his final years and for the evident happiness she brought to his life.

Appreciative noises are made too for Mandela’s former wife, Winnie, who is a figure of substance in her own right in the African National Congress.

The funeral begins with Baleka Mbete, a former deputy president and speaker of the national assembly and joint master of ceremonies, describing Mandela as “a young man who left [Qunu] seven decades ago and grew into a mighty leader who led our country out of bondage”.

The adults nod their heads in solemn approval. The national anthem starts and silence descends on the living – but only for a moment.

Soon, they are all singing the words softly. Nomvula has her right hand on her heart. Gudisaw stands, very formally and, hand on heart also, sings the words clearly. Tandake, an ANC shawl around her shoulders and an ANC scarf on her head, weeps, dabbing the tears from her cheeks. By the end of the beautiful lilting melody, they are all emotional and tearful but filled with pride.

The place of religion at the outset was marked by Bishop Dabula of the Methodist Church and chief Ngangomhlaba Matanzia of the Tembu, leopard skin draped on his shoulders, speaks in Xhosa. Rest in peace and pray for Mandela – the family raises their arms in air and cheer.

Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of the ANC and joint MC then introduces Ahmed Kathrada.

“Ahmed who?” says a younger voice from the sofa.

“Ahmed Kathrada,” says Lindokuhle, cradling her baby. “He served 26 years in Robben Island with Madiba.”

Kathrada, a frail man of Indian extraction, speaks from the heart, recalling the man he knew in jail, the prisoner who “exercised vigorously every morning” and then the man he met more recently in hospital.

“What I saw in hospital was a man helpless and reduced to a shadow of himself,” he says, struggling not to break down. “We can salute you as a fighter for freedom. Farewell my dear brother, my mentor, my leader. Now I’ve lost a brother my life is in a void and I don’t know who turn to.”

His speech, the shortest of the ceremony, draws sustained applause and is followed by the formal reading of Mandela’s obituary – a text read on at least one other occasion this week. But the younger women in the Soyaya household whoop with joy when the name of the reader is announced – grandson Ndaba Mandela.

“He’s quite intelligent and he’s also the chairman of Africa Rising. I just like him for his intelligence,” Gudiswa says, with a knowing smile.

After this, the eulogies wear thin on the family and neighbours. Perhaps had they been there, the spectacle up close would have held their attention. As it was, the great event taking place across the valley, so near and yet so far, might as well have been on the other side of the world.

For while there were references to how much Mandela loved Qunu and used to host Christmas parties for the local children and give them presents, the funeral was not one for them. A big screen marquee set up for them was largely empty, foreign TV crews outnumbering locals watching the funeral.

A village doctor has come to the Soyaya living room. Dr Margaret Ntlangula managed to get up to the Mandela house but not into the marquee. “It’s just the usual rhetoric we’ve heard for the past 10 days,” she says. “I didn’t like the speeches. For me, it was just to walk where he had walked.”