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It is in the couple's home, with the hills of Qunu in the background, that I again meet with my dear friend. I have made the trip from Chicago to South Africa because I want to better understand what Mandela has lived through. (A few days before our conversation, I visited Robben Island and stood in his tiny cell, trying to imagine spending years there.)

On the two-lane highway that weaves through the town where Mandela began his life 82 years ago, sheep and goats dot the green, sweeping landscape. Along dirt roads, barefoot women balance baskets on their heads, while the few men actually around—many go off for months at a time to work in the mines in Johannesburg—drag oxcarts along small plots of farmland. Most of the people still live in severe poverty and struggle to come by clean water; even the more fortunate families live in small shanty structures that often provide shelter for two or three families. I have already learned that in the neighboring African nation of Botswana, one in three adults is infected with the AIDS virus. I know that even in this small town, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, aunts, and uncles could not have altogether escaped the illness that is ravishing their continent.

When I finally arrive at Mandela's home, he greets me with a huge embrace— he is one of the warmest and most humble people I know. Amid kids and grandchildren who roam freely about the Mandela estate, a spirited Graça ushers me to a table set for an amazing feast: lamb stew, pork chops, seafood paella, and a traditional South African dish made with tripe. After we share the meal, Mandela settles into the corner of the couch that Graça calls his seat; from it, he can peer through a huge window overlooking most of Qunu. Here in his homeland, Mandela tells me what spending 27 years in prison taught him about himself—and why there is one thing he has never feared.

Start reading Oprah's interview with Nelson Mandela

Note: This interview appeared in the April 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

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