In two-and-a-half years Sonja Kruse has trodden through more South African towns than most of us have seen in photographs.
“I’ve become pretty good at gauging the residual energy of a place,” she says.
“Cape Town is phenomenal, but there is also sadness. It flows from a history of slave ships in the harbour. It’s new as well. You feel it on street corners in the Bo Kaap where people sit and wait quietly for work.”
This is the Sonja Kruse thousands have got to know through her blog: social reflections peppered with poetic detail.
How exactly she captured the imagination of the country is also well known. It made for a good story: there was a backpack, a camera, a R100 note, a year and a journey through South Africa to prove that ubuntu still existed in our collective subconscious.
Today, settled in the Bo Kaap, she is writing a book and is in the throes of starting The Ubuntu Effect foundation.
Kruse walks into a coffee shop in Green Point and immediately people gravitate toward her.
“But it is not me that they’re interested in,” she laughs, in between hugs from a group of black-clad waitresses – one of her many “families”. Rather, they come to catch a glimpse of something that she carries with her.
“It’s like I’m covered in bubble wrap, people come to me because they love to pop the bubbles that surround me,” says Kruse. “We all know how addictive that popping sound can be.”
These “bubbles” are the stories she carries with her. Since first taking to the road, Kruse has become a professional custodian of stories.
“I’m a story fetcher, a story carrier” – she cups her hands, there’s a little story nestled in her palms – “and finally, a story teller.”
The stories she tells are diverse, just like the people she borrowed them from. But they all have something in common: they are stories of ubuntu. This catalogue of stories, not the romantic details of her departure, is what cements the Ubuntu Girl’s status as a South African icon.
Ubuntu – “I am what I am because of who we all are”. It’s a humanist philosophy wholly indigenous to southern and western Africa. To explain Ubuntu, Nelson Mandela asked: “What are you going to do in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”
For four years Kruse mulled over that question, as she listened in on familiar conversations about the country “going to hell”.
Taking to the road in November 2009 was the moment the question turned into action.
“It’s about being the change you would like to see in other people.
“It’s about alienating people who contribute to a cynical discourse and always bring our country down,” she explains.
She visited all nine provinces, 114 towns and 150 families, reliant on the charity of others.
“There was always someone to feed me, even in the poorest settings,” she recalls. “Ubuntu is all over. It lies just beneath the surface.”
She slept in tin shacks and the homes of right-wing Afrikaner separatists; a mansion one night, a mud hut the next.
For the past eight months Kruse has been living in a room in the Bo Kaap she rents from a woman she met in Napier in the Overberg halfway through her journey.
At night she sits at her computer and works through pages of a manuscript for a book.
In front of her are stacks of photographs and a tattered map with a scribbled red line plotting her trip.
The book she is writing is a tribute to the 150 families – the “Ubuntu network” – that put her up on her journey.
The first mission of the Ubuntu Effect foundation would be to bus around the country to drop the book off to each one, she says.
But Kruse’s story, the story of the people around her and of us all, can never be finished.
In the few short months since arriving in Cape Town, her network has continued to grow. People gravitate towards her, remember. And for each story she shares she gains one in return.
“I walk down one of my favourite Bo-Kaap Streets. This is Archie’s Street. Archie’s garden is what I need to see right now,” writes Sonja on her blog.
Archie Adams is himself a repository of stories. Kruse meets him at work in a rockery garden he built in front of his home.
He lifts himself on a hooked kierie and invites her inside.
Archie was born in District Six. With a grandson on his knee he talks of an era where the gangsters of the Cape still helped grannies to carry their groceries. In those days front doors remained unlocked throughout the night and fish oil was freely available from auntie Mavis in times of need.
“That all changed after the removals,” he recalls with a sigh. “We became prisoners in our own homes.”
Pulling away from Archie and his rockery stoep, Kruse bumps into another friend. Arnold, a Zimbabwean migrant, is sitting on the corner of Castle and Rose streets. It is mid-morning and he admits it’s probably too late to be picked up for an informal job today. “Ai, but I have no choice,” he says. “They just rejected my application this morning.”
Arnold studied “wood machining and technology” back home.
“I'm qualified, you know. I just want to fix shoes and handbags. But they keep denying me my permit! You got shoes you need fixed Sonja?”
“Sorry, I’m broke,” says Kruse. “But I’m going to pray for you, Arnie, OK.”
Kruse continues her tramp up Rose Street, meeting and chatting here and there. Her fluent Zulu is a huge hit on the sidewalk.
“I met a lot of people in need, and I know giving handouts isn’t a solution,” says Kruse. “But time, conversation, empathy and prayers – those things don’t cost anything.” - Cape Argus