Bo Kaap

Extract from – Ten Traveller’s Tales

Head along Wale Street away from the city centre and in five minutes you will enter the Bo Kaap district, located on the slopes of Signal Hill, with Table Mountain looming nearby.

The residents of this inner city area with its brightly painted houses invariably being picked out by the sun are descended from some of the slaves that were imported by the Dutch in the 16th and 17th Century. For a reason that nobody is sure of, these people are today known as Cape Malays even though less than 1% of residents have descendants from Malaysia.

The best way to experience the Bo Kaap is to walk around with a local guide, someone who knows the area and the people really well. This way the visitor receives a fleeting glimpse of the local day-to-day happenings in the Bo Kaap. There’s the student from Saudi Arabia who is learning English in Cape Town, but who doesn’t trust South African dentists to treat the abscess on his tooth. The shopkeeper in the Indian delicatessen no longer wants a South African soccer jersey and the children all know in which pocket the guide keeps her treats.

Tours start at the Bo Kaap museum, a Cape Dutch style house with an attached community centre showing many exhibits on the benefits of Islam. In the museum, the first room is dedicated to the singing/dancing troupes that contest the many competitions that take place on the Tweede Nuwe Jaar, or second New Year holiday, on January 2nd. This is a holiday that dates back to the time of slavery – their owners had New Year’s celebrations, which required the slaves to cook, serve food, and attend to the guests needs. These owners allowed the slaves to have the following day off instead by way of thanks – if this sounds generous bear in mind this was their only holiday of the year.

Nowadays, this holiday features Cape Minstrels from the coloured community dancing through the city centre. They dance in troupes who all wear outfits made from same colours, which are agreed upon by the various leaders, or captains, of the troupes. These colours are kept from the other members until a week before the festival. If people don’t like the chosen colours it’s too late for them to change to another troupe with nicer colours as the dances take weeks of rehearsals to prepare.

At the museum another room contains a genuine flag from the Confederate ship Alabama, which occasionally operated in the waters off Cape Town during the American Civil War. It’s speculated that the captain of the Alabama gave a flag from his ship to the Cape authorities as thank you for repairing his ship after a skirmish with a Union vessel.

From the Museum, the tour goes to see the Auwal, the first mosque in the southern hemisphere when it was opened in 1797. Now there are 10 mosques in the Bo Kaap.  Property prices have rocketed in recent years with some small houses fetching in excess of 1 million Rand. Other houses in the area are solely for the employees of the electricity company, which means that if an employee loses their job they also lose their house. There is a waiting list.

The next place visited is the delicatessen with many Malay treats such as samosas and koeksisters, a deep-fried doughnut that has been dipped in honey. A discussion ensues about soccer shirts an indication that the 2010 FIFA World Cup will have a legacy in more ways than one.

The most striking feature of the Bo Kaap is the brightly coloured houses that line certain streets. Green, blue, and orange houses stand out against the blue winter sky. People sometimes copy the colour of their neighbour’s house or select a hue that will last longer before repainting is required. The detail is occasionally incredibly intricate such as picking out the line of the steps in a different colour to that of the rest of the front of the house. The residents are used to tourists taking pictures and don’t seem to mind too much if they are included in the image. Their washing dries on the walls and the children play communal games on the pavements.

The Bo Kaap protected historic area is bounded by Dorp and Strand streets and by Buitengracht and Pentz. Many residents are tempted to sell to outsiders because of the high prices available, which it’s feared could dilute the Muslim lifestyle of the neighbourhood. To try and stop this happening, back at the museum’s attached community centre a program is being introduced to educate people about the real Islam.

As the muezzin’s call rings out around the Bo Kaap you can’t help but hope that this program is successful and maintains the atmosphere and population of this most colourful, fascinating, and close-knit neighbourhood. There is no forgetting the past in Cape Town.

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