Bo Kaap, Cape Town. A large Muslim community with a distinctive Cape Malay culture created by intermarriage between slaves from the South and Southeast Asian countries with those from India, Madagascar, and native African groups.


Bo Kaap, Cape Town

“Famously known as a Malay neighbourhood (it is sometimes referred to as "the Malay quarter”), the Bo-Kaap has always been racially and culturally diverse, first housing Europeans and some Asians in the 18th century. After slavery was abolished in 1834, many freed slaves made the area their home. Islam was brought to the Western Cape in the 17th century and the Bo-Kaap soon became a hotbed for its teachings. The religion was attractive to former slaves, who rejected the Christianity of the British and the Dutch. South Africa’s oldest mosque is in the Bo-Kaap.

Although it is predominantly Muslim, historically up to 40% of the neighbourhood was Christian. The area remained racially and culturally diverse until it was designated a Malay area under the Group Areas Act. It remained one of the only sections of the central business district (CBD) that housed nonwhites throughout apartheid.

But the Bo-Kaap is changing. Booming demand for prime real estate in the CBD has made the neighbourhood increasingly appealing to outsiders. Its famous cobbled streets, coloured houses and homey atmosphere, coupled with relatively low house prices compared with other parts of the CBD, make it especially attractive to young creative types who want to get off the beaten track but still stay close to the city hub. In some parts of the Bo-Kaap, you are now as likely to meet a young, blonde German-born filmmaker, a skinny-jeans-wearing, soya-cappucino-drinking fashion editor or a Jo'burg business executive as you are an imam or artisan at one of the neighbourhood’s many corner shops.“

"Yeah, we've got the Rainbow Nation in this house:" Living in Bo Kaap.

I was lucky enough to get to spend two weeks in Bo Kaap, a Cape Malay neighborhood in Cape Town. Just to give an idea of the environment I lived in:

Classic Bo Kaap houses and the oldest mosque in the Southern hemisphere.

A brief history of the Cape Malay: back in the day, the Dutch charmingly enslaved a large amount of people from countries of the South Pacific, such as Malaysia and Indonesia (particularly Java). These people brought their religion (Islam) and their languages (which soon combined with Dutch, eventually coming Afrikaans) and their descendents have remained largely in the Western Cape ever since. They also mixed with many other South African groups. My family in Bo Kaap boasts heritage from France, Saudi Arabia, India, Malaysia, and indigenous South Africa.

This all became very complicated during apartheid rule, when the government attempted to institute racial categories. Completely befuddled over what to do with people who were neither of European or African descent, they characterized anyone of mixed race as “coloured,” with Cape Malay as a subcategory. The “coloured” designation remains strong in South Africa; a dialect of Afrikaans is widely understood as the “coloured” language. My American classmates and I found this difficult to understand, as there is no comparable category in the United States. It’s ok. We’re Americans. It’s more or less our job to be ignorant.

The view from my house.

My personal experience in Bo Kaap was fantastic. My family took me into their home like I was their own daughter. I had a kind father, Abdurahman, a caring mother, Thurrayah, and four fantastic siblings: a 19-year-old sister, Nuraan, twin 11-year-old sisters, Thaakiyah and Thaakirah, and a 7-year-old brother, Mika-eel. We ate Thurrayah’s amazing food, we chilled, we wandered around the city, we visited Table Mountain and Signal Hill, we bonded. Quite plainly, they’re my South African family now.

Nuraan, Thurrayah, and Thaakiyah make samosas. I neglected my folding duty to take this picture.

1. Islam as a way of life. We heard the call to prayer five times a day (I would often drift awake to it at around 5 AM, enjoy it, and then happily fall back asleep). Though the community speaks Afrikaans as a result of being in such close proximity to the Dutch for so long, the Arabic “salaam” has been adopted the typical greeting. Many times each week, very poor or homeless people would come to the door asking for food. Thurrayah would help them generously, reminding me that to do so was to follow the teachings of the Qur'an. I felt truly privileged be able to observe this way of life, even for only a few days. 

2. Community. Does everyone in South Africa sign a pact to take care of one another (as well as confused American girls who wander across their doorstep)? I don’t think I have to wax poetic about this for the seventeenth time, but…seriously.

3. The remnants of culture. It’s interesting what remains from South Asia and from interactions with the Dutch. Islam is an obvious legacy of Bo Kaap’s South Asian roots; the use of Afrikaans is a clear effect of living closely with the Dutch. My mother also cooked delicious South Asian food, such as the biryani and chicken curry I recently posted. I could also see some easy comparisons between this community and the United States: each are characterized by a mixing of people, a blending of cultures, and the story of what happened after.

4. The aftershock of District Six. District 6 was a formerly multiracial, multicultural area that was bulldozed when the apartheid government decided that it should be reserved for whites only. All non-white inhabitants were forced to leave, often after being dispossessed of their home and belongings. It remains largely empty today, the land that was once a vibrant neighborhood barren. My host mother’s family was among those forcibly evicted from the area. I heard many tales these traumatic experiences, still vivid decades later.

The streetsigns of District Six, preserved in the District Six museum. My host mothers’ grandfathers’ store was on Constitution Street.