“Do you understand apartheid?”
I was sat in Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap Museum, surrounded by grainy, black and white photographs of the surrounding streets, and my tour guide, Shireen Narkedien, was surely asking me a trick question. I’d spent the past week in a city more divided, more political, more ill at ease with itself than any I had ever set foot in – the question was loaded.
I stumbled, “Um, that’s a very complicated question…”
It was, as Shireen began to explain, even more complicated than I could imagine. It wasn’t about white supremacy, it wasn’t about the segregation of blacks, whites and coloureds; it was about the categorisation of people into 17 different classes – and as it turns out, it became so complex that even apartheid’s architects, its proponents, didn’t actually understand it either.
Cape Town is a city of juxtapositions. There are plush modern suburbs, and there are sprawling, tinshack slums. There is urban sprawl, and there is raw nature. There are city suits, and surfer beaches. There are shiny SUVs, and there are the carless, the jobless, walking endlessly by the roadside. There are whites, and there are Africans.
The neighbourhood of Bo-Kaap provides a splash of colour in contrast to the often stark, black and white nature of the city – in more ways than one. Its most famous feature is its architecture – painted every colour under the bright African sun, seducing photographers with its rainbow palette. The people who live here are called Cape Malay – just one of apartheid’s 17 classifications, but one which – as I discovered – is in fact a blend of yet more ethnicities, a culture as colourful as its streets. Cape Malay broadly describes the city’s Muslim population who originated not just from Malaysia, but Indonesia, Madagascar and India. In the mid 17th century, the Cape was settled by the Dutch. As enslaving the native African population was prohibited, the Dutch East India Company had to look further afield for slave labour – and took their pick from their Asian colonies. The Dutch-derived Afrikaans soon became the lingua franca of the Cape Malays, but they retained their Islamic faith, despite its prohibition in South Africa, along with many other cultural traits from their homelands – not least, their cuisine.
As a Cape Malay, a lifelong resident of Bo-Kaap and a qualified tour guide, Shireen Narkedien was one of the most knowledgeable sources on the past – and present – of the district. A seasoned storyteller, impassioned historian and – like all good Cape Malays – a committed foodie, there were few people better placed to narrate this neighbourhood. She did so honestly, seriously, yet without bitterness – and her zeal for Bo-Kaap was undeniable.
Our tour began in the museum, the oldest building in Bo-Kaap, and – as a former slave house – a fitting introduction to the Cape Malays’ simultaneously dark and colourful history. Handcrafted furniture revealed exceptional craftmanship, with ornate carving and marqutry in wood and mother-of-pearl, while photos displayed traditions maintained to this day, such as the Kaapse Klopse – or “Coon Carnival”. If the name makes foreigners feel somewhat uneasy, the photographs of the participants – painted like reverse black and white minstrels – do little to assuage their worries. But, we learned, the carnival began as a celebration of the slaves’ day off. Forced to work on New Years Day, when their owners would be entertaining family, the Cape Malay slaves were granted a day off on 2nd January – and so they partied. As the slave owners’ children went out to spy on them, they began to paint their faces so they would not be recognised, and to wear elaborate costumes so that the children would not know them by their work clothes.
Leaving the museum, we crossed the street to Atlas Trading, where a dizzying aroma revealed the store’s wares. This spice shop is the lifeblood of a community that is centred around the cooking and sharing of food; the Cape Malay ethos is to always prepare a little extra as you never know who might knock on your door. Shireen thrust scoopfuls of spices in front of our faces, nose-fizzingly fragrant. Infuse the curry leaves, she said, to bring down cholesterol levels. Boil up fennel seeds and put the water in a baby’s bottle – it’ll sooth colic. Sun-bright turmeric should be taken to ease menstrual cramps, or rubbed onto bleeding wounds. This was more than a grocery store; it was pharmacy and folklore, the heritage of Bo-Kaap served up in each pungent scoop.
We compared the heat of each variety of curry powder, snapped cinnamon bark, ate fruit jellies and freshly dried coconut – like children in a very grown up sweet shop. Stomachs growling, we headed uphill, admiring the views across Cape Town, where we’d have the chance to sample these spices in cooked form. Local children trailed us – Shireen was a local Pied Piper greeting each of our tiny hangers-on and handing out sweets. The colourful houses were gorgeous, but to me, their most delightful feature was the lack of burglar bars and “armed response” signs that are as much a part of the South African architecture as doors and windows. It was a relief to feel safe.
At the top of the hill we stepped into Yasmine’s modest home, where she and her daughter had prepared richly spiced lamb samoosas and chilli bites – pakora-like deep fried chickpea dough. Indian with a South African twist, light yet filling, utterly delicious. Finally, still-warm, sugar-dusted koesisters were brought out – a fluffy donut scented with cardamom and cinnamon, naughty yet too good to resist. It was easy to see how this community was so obsessed with their food; the simple ingredients may betray their humble lifestyle, but the flavour was world class.
As the tour came to an end and we waved goodbye to Shireen and Yasmine, I had to wonder if Bo-Kaap, an ancient district by Cape Town standards, would still be here whenever I return. While it has weathered the violence and indignity of slavery and apartheid, I wondered if it would survive the new threat of gentrification. While other non-white communities were dumped far from the city on windblasted plains, Bo-Kaap’s privileged location, on a hillside flanking Cape Town’s business district, could end up being its downfall. The glorious Georgian houses – so unusual in a city of beige apartments and identikit compounds – have caught the eye of investors, and the high prices offered are hard for the struggling residents to refuse. The buildings would still stand, of course – they’d be freshly painted, good as new. But they would be hollow shells. Bo-Kaap is a community, not a set of buildings – and one with a unique culture based on beliefs and rituals brought from across oceans and continents. The past may have been unkind, but the Cape Malay hospitality has never wavered; Bo-Kaap’s buildings lure the tourists but its true colours are in its faith, and its food and – above all – its friendship.
- This walking tour of Bo-Kaap was run by Shireen Narkedien. Tours last around 2-3 hours, and cost 200 rand per person. This includes entry to the Bo-Kaap Museum, as well as traditional Cape Malay snacks.
- A cooking class can be taken at the end of the tour at extra cost – you’ll learn to wrap samoosas and cook Cape Malay curry with a local resident.
- Bo-Kaap Kitchen (Craig Fraser, 2013, Quivertree Publications) is a gorgeous book with contributions from Shireen Narkedien. 23 residents tell their stories – and share their favourite Cape Malay recipes. The photography is equally as delicious.