Storyteller, Hitchhiker, Legend, Cape Town, South Africa

uBuntu means (in isiZulu) you are who you are through the people you encounter. Sonja's story is almost fantastical and I'm still deciding whether or not she is real. Sonja (known as uBuntu Girl) is well known in South Africa, but I hope her journey inspires those in the rest of the world. Eight years ago Sonja decided to travel the entire traverse of South Africa on foot for a year. She travelled through all 9 provinces of South Africa, 114 towns and stayed with 150 different families from 16 different cultures, communicating via 11 languages, sticking to her budget and relying on kindness of strangers. Her backpack contained 28 items: clothing, two notepads, headgear and a poncho for the rain, a first aid kit, toiletries, a camera and 100 South African rand (at the time $15.00, now $8.49). Throughout the journey she was welcomed by all kinds of folks, fed and invited to become part of people's routines. She defied the naysayers who warned her about entering townships and hitching rides from strangers. She learned more about the culture of South Africa, took a snapshot of the turbulent political times better than any politician at the time, and ended experience much stronger (both mentally and physically). One of her dreams was to write a book about her experience. I was lucky enough to cross paths with the uBuntu Girl and flip through this gem of a publication, and marvel at how she managed to distill 13,000 images into this photographic journey (a picture per kilometer on the road).

In her own words:

From Townhouses to Townships; from Shacks to Millionaires; from Pensioners to Students; from the ANC Youth League to the AWB

From Townhouses to Townships... from Hunters to Vegetarians; from Long Drops to Bidets: from Christians to Muslims to Rastafarians and from Curries to Chicken Feet – I experienced the joy of them all! From my very first night when a Xhosa woman from Scenery Park Township near East-London slept on the floor and allowed me to share her bed with her 2 children, to my last night when I met the only white Induna in the history of the Royal Zulu Household.

My journey brought me into contact with people like Portia Mahange, who graciously and wisely taught me to keep an open mind about people from all cultures; I shared an afternoon with an ex security policeman, who explained what it was like working under the Apartheid regime. I stepped into the shoes and vehicles of others, often when people U-turned to find out what this woman was doing at the side of the road. I sat intrigued as an 11 year old street child drew me a picture of a house when he found out that I was homeless. 351 humbling days on the road taught me about the generosity of the human spirit.

Please enjoy the interview with Sonja Kruse.

1. Name

Sonja Kruse aka The uBuntu Girl.

2. Where is your hometown?

Eshowe (in KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa).

3. What is your profession/career/title/self-label/designation?

Speaker, Workshop facilitator, Storyfetcher and storyteller.

4. What was the journey like to get where you are (in life and career wise)? What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of?

Bumpy! Having chosen a less than conventional life, this is hardly surprising. But it has also been a balanced life. One with equal measures of excitement and mundane, joy and sadness, challenges and triumphs. The accomplishment I’m most proud of is completing and publishing ‘The uBuntu Girl’ book. I am by nature much better at starting something than I am at finishing them. So this pushing through gives me pride in my own abilities.

5. What did you study in school?

I do not have any tertiary education and feel that the education I received at school has not been the biggest shaper of who I am. Thought English was my favourite subject.

6. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20?

When I was 20 I thought that I would somehow end up in the corporate world and be kick-ass! I thought that competing in a male dominated environment would show how strong I am. Now I have discovered that there are many places and ways that as a woman I can show my strengths. The idea of operating in the corporate world does not appeal to me at all now.

7. What was your biggest disappointment and plan to overcome it? 

My biggest disappointment is ongoing and it involves my inability to have taken this journey further and finding more ways to make the stories come to life. To keep them current and to collaborate with more people. At the moment I do not have a plan to overcome this. What I am doing though is keeping the vision alive in me and to keep an open mind and heart.

8. Advice for other women?

When I took the book to one of the uBuntu families, Angelina Taitai, she saw the photo of herself in the book. She exclaimed: “Wow, I am a beautiful woman!” It was not said with any trace of vanity. Instead, when she acknowledged her own beauty, she allowed me to tap into that and I felt beautiful in her presence.

So, my advice would be to acknowledge and own our beauty as women.

9. Knowing what we know now in current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it for "feminist values"?

We can be all that we can be for sure! I feel that this will be made easy once we stop undermining each other as women. When we support and respect one another instead of competing with one another.

10. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?

When I am mountain climbing. Just the mountain and I. The magnificence of the mountain ‘dwarfs’ me in a way that gives me perspective of how small we really are. And in this acknowledgement, I can stand taller.

11. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?

Swimming in the sea. For context: I live in the Southern Peninsula of Cape Town and the average water temperature is between 12 and 16 degrees Celsius (53 – 60 degrees Fahrenheit). It took a few attempts, some breathing and meditation before I was able to stay in the water for longer than 10 minutes.

12. What do you want to be when you grow up? Future goals/challenges? 

I would love to be a subsistence farmer and a writer. And I would love to still find more purpose and ways for the uBuntu journey to build social bridges.

13. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?

I struggle with intimate romantic relationships and would love to be braver and more thick-skinned in this regard.

14. Anything you'd do differently if you had another go at life? 

My life is by no means ideal. Having put myself out there so much and having reached so many crossroads in my life, there were many options and opportunities to bring about huge changes. I can not imagine having taken any other roads or I might go insane!

15. What inspires you? 

Nature. Simply.

16. What are you hopeful about? 

The future of South Africa and the journey we are on as a country.

17. What are some ingredients to a good life? 
                                       Honesty; good food and wine; spending time in nature; spending time with oneself and practising self censorship; breaking one’s own rules.

18. What advice would you give your 14-year-old self? 

Trust yourself. Always.

19. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?) 

I love novels! I’m reading ‘Underground Time’ by Delphine de Vigan. I have so many favourite books: ‘Starbook’ by Ben Okri. ‘The Blood of Flowers’ by Anita Amirrezvani, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ by Milan Kundera, ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy.

20. Who is a WOW Woman in your world who inspires you and why? Can you nominate three women you know who perfectly fit WOW WOMAN description?

There is no individual that I can think of to answer this question. Instead I think that every South African Gogo (grandmother) because they are the backbone and the heartbeat of our country. 

21. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)

My website: & The Ubuntu Girl book can be purchased here.