Bobaas Bokaap, it’s a mashallah place to be!” Story by Franki Black.
A beaming boy on a bicycle approaches our tour guide Shireen for his share of sweets. As Shireen leads us through the colourful streets of the Bo-Kaap, scores of children greet her and she knows each one by name. She also knows every passing adult by name. A walk through these friendly streets is like a journey back in time. “I still live in the same house I grew up in,” says Shireen. “This is the kind of neighbourhood where everyone knows everything about everyone else. We’re a tight-knit community and few people ever leave.”
It is this sense of community, along with exceptionally picturesque streets that attract visitors from around the world. Perched on the foot of Singla Hill, the Bo-Kaap is blessed with dramatic views of Table Mountain, the city centre and the Atlantic. Its streets are cobbled and its heart is filled with a beautiful collection of brightly-coloured houses inspired by Cape Dutch architecture. Shireen tells us that residents repaint their homes in new colours every 2-3 years. The lower streets of the Bo-Kaap are known for chic coffee shops and designer townhouses, while its upper reaches are still home to families who have lived in the Bo-Kaap for centuries. Cape Town is one of the world’s top five film locations and on most days international film crew can be seen shooting on Chiappini Street, the Bo-Kaap’s most photographed avenue.
I meet Shireen at the Bo-Kaap Museum. It’s the perfect starting point. She takes us through The Room of Many Stories where we learn about the Bo-Kaap’s rich history. Most of the area’s older residents are descended from slaves shipped in by the Dutch in the 16th and 17th Centuries. They arrive in the Cape from places like India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Among these slaves emerged well-known scholars, religious leaders and skilled craftsmen and artisans. As a result the Malay community has played a major role in the emerging language, culture and cuisine of Cape Town and South Africa.
From the museum, we walk through a narrow alleyway towards a mosque – Shireen explains how the Bo-Kaap used to be connected, like a maze, by alleyways. Today only a few remain and as we wander past residential stoeps, I hear a loud prayer call ringing from the Auwal Mosque, Cape Town’s oldest mosque and one of ten in the area. Islam developed as the dominant religion of the Bo-Kaap and today it remains the Muslim hub of the city.
Shireen’s face lights up as she tells us about the Kaapse Klopse – that colourful group of Cape Malay entertainers who grace the streets of Cape Town at the beginning of every year. On the 2nd of January, thousands of spectators – with umbrellas in hand – flood the city streets for the annual Cape Town Ministrel Carnival. Up to 110 competing groups of dancers, musicians and singers flaunt their vibrant talents to delighted crowds. The performers wear colourful suits, hats and painted faces, as they belt out crowd-favourites like “Daar Kom die Alibama”. This tradition started hundreds of years ago when slaves were given a holiday on the 2nd of January. They took to the streets – singing, dancing and making music. Many of their songs poked fun at their masters, so the performers painted their faces for anonymity reasons. Even though the big bash happens on the 2nd of January, the groups of competing minstrels continue to perform at various venues throughout the Cape well into February.
Food plays an important part in Bo-Kaap life. Shireen says it’s common for 500 guests to attend a local wedding and for everyone to bring a platter of food. In the same vein, community members see it as their duty to tend to sick neighbours and to assist at funerals by carting along lip-smacking meals.
Like most Cape Malay women of the Bo-Kaap, Shireen is a keen cook. She eagerly tells us how spices are used in pretty much every dish; she then leads us to a Bo-Kaap landmark and spice shop, the Atlas Trading Centre. We are presented with scoops of cumin, coriander and masala. I inhale potent and tantalizing smells.
Shireen tells us about the healing properties of turmeric. “For a sore throat, simply add honey and a teaspoon of turmeric to hot water.” I made a mental note to return to the Atlas Trading Centre: it has a wide selection of beans, lentils, dried fruit and much more.
Our next foodie stop is Amina’s house. Shireen explains that a handful of Bo-Kaap housewives regularly open their kitchens up for intimate cooking experiences. Bo-Kaap classics like samosas, rotis, chilli bites and koeksisters are some of the dishes that visitors can learn to make. Amina welcomes us with a smile and shows us her kitchen. Everything is prepared: dough for rolling rotis and samoosas; and onion mix for filler. Regrettably we only pass through and leave with rumbling tummies. Shireen comes to the party and leads us to Biesmiellah Cafe for the best samoosas in town. We sample spicy mashed potato, koeksisters and samoosas. “Koeksisters are mandatory on Sunday mornings in the Bo-Kaap! exclaims Shireen. “By 9:30 every Sunday morning, all 2000 koeksisters made at Biesmiellah’s are sold out!”
For Bo-Kaap walking and cooking tours contact Shireen Narkedien at tel: 082 423 6932 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org