Pwasa asem: An idiot’s guide to Ramadaan on the Cape Flats

Former Cape Argus and Cape Times editor Gasant Abarder. Photo: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency

Former Cape Argus and Cape Times editor Gasant Abarder. Photo: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency

Published Apr 4, 2023


I love Ramadaan – the Muslim month of fasting. It is a time to step back, reflect and consider those less fortunate – through fasting from sunrise to sunset, doing charity and acts of worship, like reading the Holy Qu’ran.

But, like everything else on the Cape Flats - where most Muslims in Cape Town live - the trademark brand of humour from the area doesn’t spare the holy month, writes Gasant Abarder.

There is a rich glossary and phrases unique to this part of the world that elicits great mirth. It is lovely to have grown up in such an environment where you can have a good laugh at yourself.

It sometimes draws sighs of disapproval from the elderly folk. But in a world with much Islamophobia, it is a great antidote to often-peddled stereotypes of Muslims.

For the last few years, we’ve had to wear masks due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This would have spared you from the ‘pwasa asem’ (fasting breath) of others. Pwasa is the colloquial phrase for fasting or the month of Ramadaan.

Now when you don’t eat or drink for 12 hours or so, your breath becomes rather pungent. The masks were our saviour. It is said that in the afterlife the breath of one who fasted will smell like musk. But in this world, it’s best to keep your distance or speak to others the way footballers do – with their hands covering their mouths, lest they get lip-read.

Then there is the phrase for those who eat in the skelm (on the sly) while they should be fasting. This is known as ‘eating agter die bak’. If you get caught there will be great shame for you and your family and the ones who catch you are known as ‘pwasa dieners’ (fasting cops).

If someone gets hangry or is in a bad mood during fasting they will usually be told that they ‘pwasa swaar’ (fasting with difficulty). This should not be said lightly to someone for it will make them even angrier.

There are also some special traditions like the fifteenth of Ramadaan, which marks the halfway mark of fasting. It is celebrated with boeber – a fragrant and sweet milky hot drink with vermicelli, almonds, sultanas and sago. It is delicious and isn’t so much a religious thing as a cultural Cape Malay tradition.

The halfway mark of the fast is also referred to as being ‘oppie berg’ (on the mountain) as it should, hypothetically, be smooth sailing and downhill from there.

Everyone gets boeber and a barakat – a plate given to the neighbours of another religious faith – to share in this special dish.

Now, my two older brothers were of the naughtier variety and very witty when it came to Ramadaan humour. They took it too far one day when they wrote and sang alternate lyrics for Boney M’s Christmas song ‘Mary’s Boy Child’. They sang it in Afrikaans and it went:

‘Lang, lang gelede in ‘n metjie boks

Did the holy people say

Galiema’s firstborn Ebrahim

Was born on Labarang (Eid) day

Kom nou hier, die Imam (mosque leader) sê

Kom boeka (break fast) vanaand by my.

Daar’s lekker, lekker kerrie kos

En ‘n warme samoosa daar by

Samoosas rol, koesisters jol

Because of Labarang day.’

My dad was furious. But for my 10-year-old self, it was genius and I would sing it to anyone who cared to listen.

My eldest brother Malick Abarder, an accomplished artist and filmmaker, started a YouTube series a few years ago called Daltjies & Kapparangs. It is a puppet series that provides light moments during the month of fasting.

His reasoning was similar – to show that Muslims have a sense of humour and we are not beyond having a laugh.

“Daltjies, which are more commonly known as chilibites, are made by many people on the Cape Flats who have their own recipe and unique twist. They add different vegetables or use different mixtures. These deep-fried snacks are a metaphor for the different types of people that make up our culture,” says Malick, in the preface to his show.

He continues: “When our ancestors arrived as slaves in the Cape, they did not have shoes, so they used rope and planks with wooden heels on either end to make sandals. This type of sandal is still worn to mosques all over the world. These traditional shoes are known as Kapparangs.”

Daltjies & Kapparangs started with animated characters but Malick later turned them into Jim Henson-style puppets with hilarious results. It has received wide acclaim with a tiny bit of criticism from conservative types. It has been featured on Muslim radio stations too and is a YouTube and TikTok sensation.

Ramadaan is the most auspicious for Muslims because it was the month the Holy Qu’ran was revealed to our Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). But on the Cape Flats – thanks to the best humour in the world and the rich traditions – it is just that extra bit special.

Join the #BoeberUnderTheBridge night on the fifteenth of Ramadan under the bridges on Ebenezer Road, Green Point, where a group will be breaking fast with the housing destitute. Arrive at 6pm, share a meal and get to know the less fortunate in our city.

* Gasant Abarder, who recently launched his book, Hack with a Grenade, is among the country’s most influential media voices. Catch his weekly column, exclusive to Cape {town} Etc.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.