Bo-Kaap more than just a pretty face

Western Cape

Cape Town - One of the funniest yet saddest things I have seen in Bo-Kaap was a bunch of Asian tourists pull up in a minibus, get out, snap a few photographs of the famous brightly coloured houses, get back in the vehicle and leave. The entire episode lasted less than 10 minutes.

It was more sad than amusing because Bo-Kaap has so much more to offer its visitors than a brief photo opp. Its history dates back more than 360 years, when the Dutch set up their way station between Europe and the East. Not the proudest history, since it was the slave quarter, but history nonetheless, without which a significant portion of our population would not exist.

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Colourful Bo Kaap is just a short walk away.Cape Town. Bo-Kaap resident and banjo player Boeta Gamie ,81,  shows the picture of him, his brother and son that is in the Bo-Kaap museum in Wale Street. Picture Ian Landsberg

About 10 000 people live there now; approximately 70 percent are Muslim. It’s home to the oldest mosque in the southern hemisphere, built in 1793, one of 10 in the area.

The two mosques in Long Street were originally part of Bo-Kaap when it was known as the Cape Malay Quarter.

There is a Vespa repair workshop, an Oriental Hairdressing Saloon, Rose Corner Café where a signboard advertises “warm worsies daily” and is one of the best places to get fresh koesusters early in the morning, Rocksole, the family-run place where shoes, boots and bags go to be resuscitated, the spice emporium that is Atlas Trading, restaurants, and hip new coffee shops which display beautiful art but where you are not going to see an original resident. It’s all part of the mix that makes up this exotic melting pot bordering the central business district.

You can wander around on your own or, if you want to learn more about the Bo-Kaap, I suggest you engage a registered tour guide. I met Shireen Narkedien – who happens to have co-ordinated the stories in the Bo-Kaap Kitchen cookbook (see above), lives in the house in which she was born, and is a specialist in the area – at the Bo-Kaap Museum in Wale Street.

Shireen told me many things I did not know (shameful, really) in the museum and as we strolled the streets before stopping at Biesmiellah take-away for sweetmeats, which are not all sweet and not all meat. She also took me to meet Boeta Gamie, who is 85.

He used to sing in the Malay choirs, and there is a photograph of his father and uncles in the museum, from their days in the choirs.

He doesn’t sing competitively any more, but he did offer to sing for me. Later, when I walked past where he lives, he was standing on the corner watching the world go by, and we exchanged a friendly wave.

It made me smile to experience the strong sense of community here.


Someone else who can take you on an informative tour is Ursula Stevens. I’ve walked with her a few times, and the tour is not limited to the Bo-Kaap but also covers the central city. “My almost daily visits to Bo-Kaap were the catalyst for my book, Bo-Kaap & Islam.” - Weekend Argus

l Shireen Narkadien 082 423 6932 or 021 422 1554. Ursula Stevens 021 462 4252,

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