Cultural wonder in the colourful Bo Kaap

Wednesday, 21 April 2021 12:09 PM

There’s so much more to Bo Kaap than it’s brightly coloured houses – although you’ll be forgiven for joining the masses and snapping an Instagram-worthy flick in front of them. It’s one of the oldest residential areas in the country, dating back as early as the 1760s and is home to an eccentric community, brimming with rich Islamic culture, fragrant cuisine, and intriguing history, making it a must-see when in the Mother City.

Over the years, this picturesque area’s name has changed from Waalendorp, to the Cape Malay Quarter, to Slamse Buurt, to Schotsche Kloof, finally settling on Bo Kaap, meaning ‘above the Cape’. It’s set against the sloping foot of Table Mountain National Park, and from one of its many hilltop viewpoints, you can marvel at the views of a city bowl, bordered by the towering and dazzlingly beautiful Table Mountain.

Over two centuries ago, the Dutch brought the east-Atlantic slave trade to the shores of the Cape, depositing a multicultural diaspora of Sri Lankan, Indian, and Malaysian people in the Cape. Many of them eventually settled in Bo Kaap, but those who were not Muslim, or of the “right” ethnicity, were ousted under the Group Areas Act of 1950 by the atrocious apartheid government. Even through human rights violations, racist and oppressive laws, and extremely trying political times, the Bo Kaap community persevered and thrived.

There is something in Bo Kaap unlike any other suburb in the Cape. Neighbours are friends, children play with each other in the streets, celebrations and tribulations are shared by most; it is a close-knit community teeming with friendly greetings, age-old traditions, and vibrant culture. Here, you’ll find freshly-baked koeksisters (a traditional, sweet doughnut covered in desiccated coconut) at every corner store, delectable gatsbies (large sandwiches) overflowing with filling, and families that have lived in this area for generations.

Make sure to stop by the Bo Kaap Museum, one of the oldest buildings in the area, to learn more about the communities heritage and culture. There’s also the Auwal Mosque in Dorp Street, the oldest in the country. It was constructed back in 1794, a couple of years before Muslims were legally allowed to practise their religion in public. The mosque stands on land once belonging to a former slave named Coridon van Ceylon, whose daughter Saartjie van den Caap, later donated it to the community. Here, you can see a copy of the Quran written by the mosque’s first-ever imam, Tuan Guru. He wrote it from memory during his time spent as a political prisoner on Robben Island during apartheid. The famous Atlas Trading spice store is a mecca for local ingredients at bargain prices, while Bo Kaap Kombuis makes an incredible place to enjoy authentic Cape Malay cuisine with unpolluted views of Table Mountain.

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