Bo-Kaap (from ‘boven Kaap’ or ‘above the cape’) is a famous neighbourhood in the city of Cape Town, South Africa. Located above the city on the slopes of Signal Hill and formerly known as the Malay Quarter, it is well-known for its characteristically colourful houses. The area is probably one of the most photographed sites in Cape Town and locals have told me that the Bo-Kaap is often a location for film shoots due to its ‘romantic’ and picturesque character.
History of the Bo-kaap
Considered the historic centre of Cape Malay or Cape Muslim culture, the Bo-Kaap has a very rich history. Many of the current residents of Bo-Kaap are descendents of slaves from Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Java Malaysia and other parts of Asia. They were imported to the Cape by the Dutch during the 16th and 17 the century. The reference to Malay culture can be misleading, as only a small percentage of these people hailed from Malaysia. Nowadays, the area is home to about 6000 residents of whom about 90% are Muslim.
I also briefly visited the Bo-Kaap Museum (pictured). The Museum was established in 1978 as a satellite of the SA Cultural History Museum, aimed to ‘showcase local Islamic culture and heritage’. Though small, I enjoyed my visit to the museum. The information about creole traditions like carnival (Kaapse Klopse), celebrated on the 2nd of January, was especially interesting. Historically, slaves would get a day off after the 1st of January to celebrate New Years in their own tradition. The wonderful museum guide gave me a one-on-one tour of the museum!
Meeting the Residents
Whilst I was walking around and taking pictures, this boy came up to me and asked if it was my own camera I was holding. I replied yes, so he asked if I could take a photo of him. As you can see, I agreed and the result is this photo. After we chatted for a while, he kindly asked if I was now inclined to give him my camera. Unfortunately, I figured I had to say no if I wanted to take more pictures of my adventures in South Africa, but thankfully he left equally as cheery as he had greeted me before!
This is Longmarket Street with the Boorhaanol Mosque on the left (the green building with the star and crescent on top of the minaret), the only mosque in Cape Town officially declared a national monument. It was first built in 1884 and was originally known as Pilgrim Mosque.
Colourful Bo-Kaap Houses
The reason behind the colourful Bo-Kaap painted houses is not entirely clear, though some say it originates from the fact that slaves were not allowed to wear any colourful clothing . The custom to brightly paint houses may have started during celebrations of the abolition of slavery in 1838, celebrating the freedom of finally being able to express oneself. Others say it may have something to do with South-Africa’s reinvention as the ‘Rainbow Nation’, but I personally doubt this interpretation . Alternatively, the colours have also been linked to the feast of Eid at the end of Ramadan. Muslim residents may have painted their houses in preparation for celebrations.
I visited the Bo-Kaap in July 2014, when I was staying in the country for a few weeks as a volunteer. If you find yourself in South Africa, it is just of those sights you have to see. Although I’ve heard it can be quite touristy, I thought it was genuinely interesting to visit the area.
When I was walking down the streets, there weren’t many (other) tourists at all. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that it was winter season (tourist low-season). I imagine the dreary weather didn’t exactly help either. In fact, it seemed like I was the only one and several guards came up to me asking what on earth I was doing walking around the city all alone.
Whilst travelling in South Africa alone, I may have felt unsafe a couple of times, but I certainly not when I was walking around the Bo-Kaap. Of course you always need to remain alert, but the people I talked to were very friendly, especially the museum guide and the little boy I ran into. Good memories!