On a grassy hilltop overlooking this serene village, a grave has been prepared for Nelson Mandela. But like many here, his sister-in-law Nothemba Mandela prays day and night for it to remain empty for as long as possible. And every Thursday, she joins a women’s group at the Methodist church to sing and pray some more.

“We are connecting with God so he can do everything in his power to heal Madiba,” she said, using his Xhosa clan name. “He’s given so much to us.”

Over the past four days, and ahead of President Obama’s visit to the country this weekend, the prayers have grown louder as the beloved anti-apartheid icon and former president’s health has turned critically serious. South Africans across the nation are reflecting on Mandela’s legacy as if steeling themselves for his eventual death.

How Mandela will be remembered, and what sort of legacy he passes on, has triggered a bitter dispute among South Africans amid reports that his children and other relatives have sought to market his name and image, and that politicians are using their association with him to boost their popularity.

“Uphold all of us with your steadfast love so that we may be filled with gratitude for all the good that he has done for us and for our nation,” Thabo Makgoba, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, wrote in a prayer posted online this week after he visited Mandela at his hospital in Pretoria. Makgoba wrote that he wished Mandela be granted “a quiet night and a peaceful, perfect, end.”

That legacy has already been cemented, in the purest form possible, through the residents of Qunu, a sprawling village in the green and brown hills of the Eastern Cape province. It’s hard to find anyone here who hasn’t been personally touched by Mandela and his life. It is the village where he grew up and where he retired when he left public life. In his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” he describes Qunu as the place where he spent the happiest moments of his childhood.

How people here remember Mandela, 94, is not measured in terms of money or political credibility, but in a lasting impact he has had on their lives through his generosity and kindness.

Kekana Manqwambi owns the house next to Mandela’s peach-colored homestead in Qunu. A few years ago, his eldest son got in a dispute at work and was thrown in jail. Mandela, he said, gave him 500 rand, roughly $50, to pay for his bail.

“I will always be grateful for what Madiba did,” said Manqwambi, a talkative 92-year-old who recently moved to a new house across the road. His son, he said, is now Mandela’s next-door neighbor.

“I can’t imagine the world without Madiba,” he said.

Though nearly the same age, the two men met only after the apartheid regime freed Mandela in 1990 after 27 years of incarceration, Manqwambi said. They were from the same clan and became close friends in 1999 after Mandela finished his term as South Africa’s first black president. For years, Mandela visited Qunu during holidays, staying at his homestead, before moving there permanently last year.

Mandela frequently greeted residents at his home and took walks in the fields surrounding Qunu. He often wanted to see Manqwambi’s cows and held traditional feasts for family and friends in the village.

“He missed home, the rural landscape. He wanted to come home,” Manqwambi recalled.

Targeted under apartheid

Under apartheid, Qunu was particularly targeted by the white-ruled government because of its ties to Mandela. The mere mention of his name would have meant imprisonment, residents said. Today, most houses have electricity and access to running water through outdoor water taps. But the village, like other areas of the country, is also suffering from high levels of poverty, crime, corruption and unemployment that the African National Congress-led government has been unable to fix, despite promising to redress the inequality that persists between blacks and whites.

“Government services are delivered slowly, and some water taps are white elephants that do not work,” said Bantu Habe, 48, the owner of a guest house across the road from Mandela’s homestead. “Some people still need shelter, and many youth are without jobs.”

But he and other Qunu residents are especially upset about the recent efforts to benefit from Mandela’s legacy, politically and financially. In one well-publicized incident, senior ANC leaders took a photo in April with an ailing Mandela and broadcast it nationwide. Mandela’s relatives and friends accused the ANC of using the visit for political gain at a time when the party’s leadership had been criticized as elitist and out of touch with its constituents. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, also came under fire for publishing a photo of Mandela embracing Helen Suzman, an anti-apartheid politician, whose political party was widely seen as a precursor to the Democratic Alliance.

“They were trying to take advantage of Madiba,” Habe said. “It was sad.”

Meanwhile, two of Mandela’s daughters have been trying to gain access to the family’s $1.3 million trust and have sued to force Mandela’s close friends off the boards of companies created to sell Mandela’s paintings in order to raise money for him and his heirs. Other family members have started a reality TV show called “Being Mandela” or have used the family name in other commercial ventures.

Family members have publicly denied that they are using Mandela’s name and image to make money, while others say there’s nothing wrong with their actions. In Qunu, however, residents worry that his legacy will be tainted.

“It’s a shame to use Madiba’s name for ulterior purposes different than what he represents,” said Zimisele Gamakhulu, 46, a tour guide at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu. “He is an icon of freedom and of human rights.”

Following Mandela’s path

At the museum this week, Gamakhulu and his colleagues tried to instill the ethos of Mandela into a group of 48 high school students attending a week-long camp in Qunu. They solemnly gazed at large placards carrying powerful quotes from Mandela; they listened to lectures about Mandela’s roots, his heroic life and his views and ideals.

The students later went outside to a hill overlooking Qunu where Mandela used to play as a child. Some slid down the hill using rubber strips as seats, just like Mandela used to do. Later this week, the group will stage plays, sing songs and create art around themes of fighting against government corruption and struggling for human rights.

“We are teaching to be critical thinkers, use their minds like Mandela,” said Vusani Nesengani, 22, one of the camp’s organizers. “We are teaching them to follow in Mandela’s footsteps.”

Underneath the surface, there was a sense of anguish.

Aseza Ngqongana, 18, said Mandela’s foundation helped her cover school costs so that she can one day work to help her struggling parents. “He is like my father. He means a lot to me,” she said. “I am praying for him.”