Colourful Historical Bo-Kaap

To the west of Cape Town is Signal Hill and Lion’s Head. This is, in fact, one and the same hill with its own rich and colourful history with a daily Noon Gun situated at Leeuw Batterij. Lion’s Head is a world famous summit hike that draws roughly 200,000 hikers annually.

Facing Kaapstad, the Afrikaans original name for Cape Town, is the colourful Bo-Kaap which means Upper Cape. Bo-Kaap has just been classified courtesy of Mayor Dan Plato as a heritage site to protect its unique architecture and colourful way of life. And we are most grateful.

The original residents here in the 1600’s en 1700’s were a mixture of just over forty percent traders and artisans of Cape Malay orientation. Cobblers, tailors, builders, cabinetmakers and woodworkers, etc. Also traders in sundry goods ranging from steel nails to every conceivable goods imported from abroad. Well over 300 years later, this is where we still go to buy dried lentils and beans, soya, curry, cumin, coriander, cumin and other dried spices. When going there, we celebrate this ancient local tradition. That is what the true Capetonian will do.

The Cape Malay is no homogenous group but rather a mixture of Javan, Indonesian, Malaysian and even some Phillipino blood mixed with East African and Middle Eastern cultures.

Bo-Kaap is a well-known tourist destination and photoghenic with its cutesy square houses painted in the colours of a hundred technicolor rainbows. Beautiful to behold.

And we speak the latest African indigenous language, Afrikaans. A beautiful expressive language born from a quick wit and lending itself to the humour unique to the Cape. Wrongley perceived as the language of the oppressor, there is much official pressure to eradicate this artful language. Fact is that oppression came first in another language. An oppression that had been enforced for over two centuries in a foreign tongue. Yes, in Bo-Kaap, they paint colourful words also with the tongue.

As slavery was abolished in the 1800’s, freemen started pulling the front teeth and having an “empty smile” was a status symbol of being free. Every year on January 2, a Rio carnaval-alike procession dances through the streets in Cape Town. As could be expected, this joyful procession comes with a myriad of “troupes”, eahc such troupe attired in most colourful, funky attire. Imagine party uniforms and crowds of aspiring spectators. Some sleep for a week in advance, having set up basic campsites on the sidewalks to secure a point of advantage.

Bo-Kaap also had many fishermen and the local speciality is snoek, of the barracouta family and totally unrelated to the fresh water species of the Netherlands with the same name. In modern times, one cannot leave here without having a “parceltjie” of fish and chips. I prefer mine the old way, dressed in old jeans in soft rain on the harbour wall. Hake and chips is immensely popular.

Easter in Cape Town when mostly the Anglophones eat pickled fish. This supposedly “Chrtistian” tradition originated from especially the Bo-Kaap’s Cape Malay Muslims. Go figure 🙂

Bo-Kaap is where Christian and Muslim were neighbours, where mosques and little churches are a few yards from each other and where they even worshipped and prayed together, as many of my Bo-Kaap friends told me often.
These people were the industrious early Capetonians, the backbone of the local economy when the Dutch and English ladies were plain lazy gossips who went like flocks of sparrrows from home to home to practice gossip and idleness. Gossip and slander was so bad that some ladies had their tongues pierced or they received lashes from the fiscal. Some Dutch women were banned to either Robben Island or even Mauritius. Some even were sent to Batavia. (We should maybe reinstitue some wholesome old Cape practices……!!)

While the Duch East Indian Company or VOC opened up a refreshment station as a pit stop for the words’s then largest corporation, colonialism came with the British invasions of 1795 and 1806 – the year when suffrage was removes from commoners. Segregation came first on a constitution of the English community’s various communist entities under direct leadership of Karl Marx who then lived in Cape Town. That was around 1850.

Bo-Kaap survived so many onslaughts be it cultural, economical and political yet the good people of this resilient hillside are still as industrious as three centuries ago, they still dance in the streets, some still have that “empty smile” and the cuisine is as herby and spicy as before. If you had visited South Africa and didn’t visit colourful Bo-Kaap, then I wonder whether you ever had passed through customs.

Whether you arrive by plane, or any of the luxury trains, by ship or by road, be sure to taste the Bo-Kaap bobotie, a most tasty signaturte Capetonian meal.

Bo-Kaap won’t disappoint!