It was the turn of the Thembu tribe to mourn the South African lion.
Nelson Mandela was descended from Thembu royalty, and in the tiny village of Mvezo, where he was born, hundreds from his tribe made the pilgrimage Thursday to the family complex set in rolling verdant hills overlooking the rain-swollen Mbashe River.
"My grandfather was a freedom icon for the whole world, but we are trying to keep his legacy alive in our little place here," Mandela’s grandson, Jongisiswe Dani, told the Daily News. "Everything my grandfather stood for, we are trying to live up to that here."
Wearing a traditional blue and white scarf, Queen Noluntu Dalindyebo of the Thembu nation called their service on Friday the most important part of the weeklong series of events honoring the man they referred to as Madiba, Mandela’s clan name.
“We will tell him how we feel," the queen, who is married to King Zwelibanzi, told The News. "It's important because he was a chief, and we are the traditional leaders of his people."
Inside a timber-roofed hall, scores of people sang praise songs for Mandela and other leaders of the struggle as a giant portrait of the anti-apartheid hero dressed in traditional tribal robes stared down at them.
Outside, women trudged through thick red mud, lugging sacks of carrots, potatoes and rice up a steep stone path to a hall where they planned to cook for their repast.
Owen Dlamini vowed to tell his children and grandchildren that he attended the historic event.
"In 15 years, in 20 years, I will tell them and I will be so proud," he said. "I was born here, and Madiba was born here."
"I feel so much respected that so many are coming to honor Madiba," said 71-year-old Simon Marwabuca, speaking in the local Xhosa language. "He's a role model for us, and all I can do is follow in his footsteps any way I can."
"They are feeling so proud and sad at the same time," added Joseph Tonga, who came from the nearby city of Port St. Johns.
Sylvia Madrose shooed away goats as she walked with her family in the early-morning cold to Mvezo.
“Madiba, you are like a father and a mother to the entire nation," she said in halting English. "All the people you saved are now saying thank you for what you have done."
Mandela, who died last week at age 95, may have been from Mvezo, but he grew up in Qunu.
Security in that village was racheted up again as officials prepared for Sunday’s state funeral on the grounds of the Mandela family compound.
Soldiers patrolled the perimeter of the property while construction workers raced to complete the canvas-covered dome under which the ceremony will be held.
Locals who ventured near found themselves — and their documentation — being scrutinized by gun-toting recruits in camouflage gear.
The best view of the construction underway was from the hilltop where the Nelson Mandela Museum is located — and where hundreds of children braved a stiff breeze and windswept showers to attend a Christmas party.
In years past, Mandela himself sometimes showed up at the museum to hand out “sweets” and toys to the kids. This year, there was just his memory.
“We've learned so much about Madiba's message,” said Thandi Xolile, 10. “I’m happy to be here close to him.”
Priscilla Sipuka of the Child Abuse Resource Center in nearby Mthatha said Mandela “prioritized the children, especially those who were marginalized for one reason or another.
"His message was: Children are the nation of tomorrow," she said.
On a giant white screen at the museum, children and visitors left heartfelt messages for the man they called Tata Madiba. (“Tata” is a term of endearmeant literally meaning “father.”)
"RIP Madiba 4 Eva Loved," wrote Zothani Tshabalala.
"Go well," wrote Simphiwe Ngese. "Will miss you always."
In the South African capital of Pretoria, for a second day, thousands streamed past the casket bearing Mandela’s body at the Union Buildings.
“Madiba was tough-minded, tender-hearted,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who flew in from the U.S. to pay his respects, told the The Star newspaper in Johannesburg. “He was a living martyr for 51 years, longer than Dr. King and Jesus lived.”