QUNU, South Africa Gardeners mowed the lawn outside the tiny museum honoring local hero Nelson Mandela on Thursday, while a work crew laid new tarmac on the road outside his house and a school choir rehearsed a song they created especially for him.
The anti-apartheid icon planned to spend his 90th birthday Friday at home in the southeastern village of Qunu with his family, and the whole village is celebrating.
"We are very excited," school principal Mpondomise Ndzambo said, sitting in this office beneath a photograph of the former president. "Usually these celebrations are done in Johannesburg, so this is a way of being part of it."
Perched atop a hill, the Nkalane Junior Secondary School overlooks Mandela's sprawling homestead and enjoys a special relationship with its famous neighbor.
Mandela helped raise funds so the school could build new classrooms and move out of a dilapidated mud structure. He used to visit often, but doesn't these days as his age catches up with him.
"He has done a lot for us, specially for the school," Ndzambo said. "He suffered a lot trying to get this South Africa to be free and fair. I think he is a great man."
Mandela was imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against apartheid. He was released in 1990 to lead negotiations that ended decades of racist white rule, then was elected president in South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994.
He completed his term in 1999 and did not run again, but has continued to take a leading role in the fight against poverty, illiteracy and AIDS in Africa.
His birthday is annual cause for celebration in South Africa and draws attention from his many local and international admirers. South Africa has been celebrating since the start of the year, with museum exhibitions, reunions of anti-apartheid veterans, a weekend speech by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the launch of special coins and stamps.
Birthday messages have been pouring in, including one Thursday from world soccer chief Sepp Blatter, who lauded Mandela for dedicating his life "to the promotion of human rights and democracy."
In another birthday tribute Thursday, F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last apartheid-era president who also served as Mandela's vice president, called Mandela "one of the greatest figures of the 20th century."
Mandela at first planned a quiet affair in this picturesque Xhosa homeland with its rolling hills and turquoise huts. But there are now a variety of events planned in his honor in and around Qunu a soccer festival, a pop concert and lunch for 500 politicians, veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle and other guests at his home Saturday.
An exhibition of letters that children wrote to Mandela and the late U.S. civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks will be displayed at the Nelson Mandela Museum, a short distance from his house.
In the provincial capital of Mthatha, youngsters put the finishing touches to birthday greetings on a length of wall along Nelson Mandela Drive. "Your people salute you. Happy birthday, Madiba," the sign read, using the clan name by which South Africans affectionately refer to Mandela.
Outside the local museum, a stage was being erected and banners hung bearing pictures of Mandela as a young and older man.
At Mandela's home, cars and catering vans shuttled in and out during the day and a large tent went up behind the two-story house.
The homestead, which includes some of the only green fields visible for miles, stretches from the main national highway down to a large dam. A small herd of cattle graze nearby.
Up on the hillside, it seemed the only lesson of the day at the Nkalane Junior Secondary School was Mandela's birthday.
In the classroom where the choir was practicing, the respectful greeting: "Happy Birthday, Tat'u (father) Mandela" was written neatly on the chalkboard.
The choir of children of all ages, who expected to perform for Mandela on Friday, chose traditional songs praising the former president as a great man and tunes that were sung by activists during the fight against apartheid.
Yaneliswa Khandawuli, 16, wrote a poem for the occasion, dedicated to the "hero of the heroes."
"Nelson Mandela changed our lives," she said. "All of us, black and white we are now the rainbow nation. I love him very much."
Khandawuli wished Mandela a long life and a happy day. But she really wished for something for herself.
"I don't want God to take him away from us," she said.