Cape Town stories: Bo-Kaap, suburbs dipped in rainbow

Here I am in the colorful suburbs of Cape Town. The whole village is a palette of bright colors. The houses are all lined up, one pushed against the other, just like little layered cakes. The street consist of cobblestones and the restaurants are savory chambers where smells of cumin and turmeric stun you as you pass them by.

In this suburb, there are many things located that are of ancient history such as a couple of centuries old museum and the first mosque ever built in South Africa. Here and there you can see the natives chatting on the porch in front of their house while tourists hide behind their cameras to capture every single moment of the beauty. What can I say, except, welcome to Bo-Kaap!

Bo-Kaap, formerly known as the Malay Quarter, Cape Town

On a 10 min walking distance from the city center and the legendary Cape Business District, where everything shines and yells modernism, hides a special place, colorful like licider hearts. It’s called Bo-Kaap or Malay Quarters. I’ve visited this place twice, so I feel free to say that both times has the village been populated by hasty tourists who were, like children in those vivid ball pools, running around, ecstatic, taking pictures of every street corner. However, I would like to point out that Bo-Kaap is more than just flashy houses, it’s a place with a soul that’s been a little infuriated throughout history but moreover persevering and unshakable.

Street graffiti , Bo-Kaap, Cape Town
Suburb Bo-Kaap, Cape Town with Devils Peak in the background

Most of the residents of this village were descendants of slaves who were brought to Cape Town in the 16th and 17th century. Their homelands were Indonesia, Malaysia, Africa and numerous Asian countries. Those people were mostly craftsmen but were also educated people, politicians in exile and religious leaders. With their arrival came new ideas, lifestyles, religion and a new multi-cultural moment. As for the troubled journey, as some describe it, more information will be found in the MUSEUM BO-KAAP IZIKO , which I highly recommend visiting before you start your journey. This museum is in fact a branch of the SA Cultural History Museum. There are 4 rooms in the museum that were once so lively but now, they’ve been transformed into collective rooms where you can see all the weapons the residents had used. Among those tools, they’ve put out black and white photographs, video footage, dishes and parts of the interior from those times. After visiting the museum, you will feel the trembling of the heart of the outcasts that had left their hometown and came here, to Cape Town.

Bo-Kaap, Cape Town with Signal Hill in the background

They were given a local nickname which is used even today- Cape Malays, but unfortunately that’s considered to be untrue and generalized for those people didn’t come just from Malaysia as we said in the beginning of the text. In a large percent, more than 90% of people living here are usually of Muslim faith. What kept them strong is the fact that they’ve managed to keep their identity and their religious roots. In this suburb alone exist a couple of mosques, one of the most popular ones is Auwal Mosque which was built by prince of Indonesia in 1794. This spiritual landmark is the first mosque ever built in the whole South Africa. Then we have the Nural Islam Mosque, built in 1844 and also located in this suburb.

The Shafee mosque, Bo-Kaap, Cape Town

And now, let’s start out tour of this steep and hilly village. The houses are small and often terrestrial, dyed in all the most beautiful colors. One is pink, the other pastel green, sky blue and so on.
The good part is that tourists have the permission to take pictures of the houses or of them next to the house and no one will make a fuss about it. They say that their home is a true blessing for them. As I’ve said, this is not the only reason why it’s so popular, it is a living and breathing history of the immigrants who as slaves came to Bo-Kaap and started settling in this neighborhood. Later, when slavery was forbidden by law, they continued living in those houses giving them a certain symbolic charm.

Cobblestones streets, Bo-Kaap, Cape Town

We had a privilege to meet a charming older lady on her doorstep, so we took the opportunity to have a little chat. She states that she’s the fifth generation to inherit a lovely lilac house. She told us that the reason the houses are colored in such vibrant colors is because those colors represent years of tortured lives her ancestors had had. They, at least, wanted for their houses to be bright colored so that something happy awaits them every time.


She said that 5 years ago her house was yellow, before that it was orange, and that every 5 or 6 years she changes the color of the facade, and every time she does so it makes her feel much better. I have to admit that I shared that same feeling while I was looking around the village. Our interlocutor was also dressed in bright colors just as authentic as the house she lives in. The talk was so inspiring that we ended up on her balcony sipping Boeber which is a traditional sweet milk with sago and cinnamon and two other, secret ingredients which I’ll tell you in confidence: aromatic cardamom and Rose water. Of course, that after that we started talking about food and cuisines. In this suburb, as you can probably guess, immigrants defined the cuisine which was named Cape Malay cuisine. The dishes are mostly aromatic with extra spices like cumin, anise, tamarind and cinnamon. All those spices can be bought in this little gorgeous store where there are so many spices, you probably haven’t heard half of them. The cuisine is all about fish, vegetables, fruit and meat but also interesting combinations of dried fruit like dried grapes and apricots that are put in salty meals. All in all, it was a warm and happy welcome for sure and it made us develop an even lovelier opinion about this amazing village located in the heart of Cape Town.
It seems to me that the natives of Bo-Kaap, with all their affinities for decorating exterior, are pretty good examples for theorists who indulge in color therapy. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t, who knows…? I would say that these colors energize and overpower, so let’s give this ‘grey’ world a little splash because it’s definitely a treasury worth researching and fighting for!

Suburb Bo-Kaap, Cape Town with Table Mountain in the background

About

“Believe in unicorn” is a divine universe that combines colour, scent and adventure. It consists of educational and emotional stories of faraway cities, exotic islands and all other fascinations the author experienced during her travels.

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2 Comments

  • Hello Tanja!
    I am so loving coming to your site. It is always so fun, engaging and informative. I absolutely adore the colors on the houses. And the symbolic meaning to let go of what was..to be in this moment. Goose bump times. It sounds like a magical place to be. I have friends in Cape Town and when they share photos I just get so excited at how beautiful the locale is. I hope to visit one day. And will certainly make sure I see this lovely place of Bo Kapp.
    Thanks for taking us on tour.
    In peace and gratitude, ariel

  • Dear Ariel,
    Cape Town is stunning from sea to sky. I would highly recommend visiting The Mother City.
    Thank you very much for all your kind words.
    I highly appreciate all your compliments.
    Best wishes,
    Tanja

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