The Bo-Kaap: a Sense of Malays

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It was a century after the Dutch East India Company founded Cape Town as a way-station for its ships.

Jan de Waal, sexton at the Groote Kerk, got into property development. He assembled a site at the foot of Signal Hill and built cheap huurhuisjes (literally, ‘hire houses’) on it. Back then, in the 1760s, they called the neighbourhood Waalendorp. It has had several names since then, but the Bo-Kaap* is the one which stuck.

The VOC** imported slaves to Cape Town from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Malacca (Malaysia), as well as India, Madagascar and East Africa. It sent imams there in exile for preaching against colonial rule. They were followed, later, by Muslim artisans from India and elsewhere. The community came to be known, regardless of origin, as Cape Malays.  They settled in the Bo-Kaap.

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They alone were permitted to live there under Apartheid. Other groups were forcibly  removed. Anyone is free to move there now, but that has brought controversies of its own. Activists protest about gentrification, of the traditional community being priced out, of the neighbourhood losing its character.

But, to the outsider at least, the Bo-Kaap seems barely to have changed in going on two hundred years. There might be streetlights and telephone wires, parked cars and satellite dishes. The major roads might be metalled. But its heritage is surprisingly intact.

The newest of the houses date back to the 1840s and are in a recognisably English style, flat-fronted, flat-roofed, with wooden sash windows. The oldest are built to a Dutch pattern. There are still some of Jan de Waal’s original huurhuisjes. Houses are interspersed with mosques and madrassas. Minarets sprout between the flat roofs.

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All are painted in bold colours, bright yellow, pastel pink, lime green, powder blue, lilac and ochre. Some accounts claim this as a celebration of freedom by emancipated slaves after 1834. Others suggest it is more recent: a cheerful riposte to Apartheid. Neither, though, would explain why houses of about the same period are painted in much the same way in Kentish Town, North London.

Occasional words of old Malay are still heard on the streets. The few businesses are small independents. There is Fatima Mini Market, Star Supply Store and the Rose Corner Café with “warm worsies sold here,”and “koeksisters available”. These are luminous pink local sausages and spiced doughnuts coated in desiccated coconut.

In 1946, two years before Apartheid, the Ahmed family set up in business as spice importers. They established the Atlas Trading Company which is still operating today. The shop, according to the old letters under the roofline, and above the rusting goods hoist, used to be Müller’s Reserve Store.

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Atlas were a few doors further down Wale Street when I was there in 2014. The freehand signwriting on the shutters and bricks declared their business. (They have a corporate logo now.) But you would have known if you had passed with your eyes shut what line they were in.

Inside there was a wooden unit with glass-fronted drawers. Behind it were shelves piled with spices in bags and boxes and packets. There were wooden hoppers with metal scoops laid across the lids. Nothing much seemed to have changed since 1946.

But at end of that block, on the corner with Rose Street, the Bo-Kaap segues into the world of tech stores, car showrooms and chain hotels as abruptly as if you had stepped off a film set.

© Richard Senior 2020

*Above the Cape in Afrikaans

**Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, i.e. the Dutch East India Company

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 7*

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Dr Livingstone thought that Victoria Falls sounded better than the local name, Mosi–oa-Tunya, which means “the smoke that thunders”. It did to him. The government is threatening to change the name back, which has got people worked up in support and against, but is hardly among the more urgent things which need to done in Zimbabwe. As with Myanmar, Ho Chi Minh City, and Uluru, the old name will stick whatever the government says.

The word “awesome” has become as devalued now as the old Zimbabwe dollar; but, when you first see the falls and it pops into your head, it belongs there. A mile of water, hurtling out of control, tumbles over the edge and disintegrates into abstracts: thick gouache white swirling over slime green, tumbling, tumbling, tumbling a hundred metres into the gorge below, hissing and rumbling, roaring and thundering like some massive industrial process; the spray rebounds, a gathering storm, higher – way higher – than the top of the falls, until a perfect rainbow chops it in two and it comes down again as an unseasonal shower and soaks the path and the sightseers who stand there and gawp.

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Victoria Falls is a tourist town, but it was never anything else. Almost as soon as Livingstone had reported back, the curious came to see the falls and curio traders came to sell the curious curios. A village grew up and then a town. The railway came west from Bulawayo, and Cecil Rhodes commissioned a bridge across the Zambezi into modern-day Zambia. What started as temporary quarters for railway workers ended up as the grandly Edwardian Victoria Falls Hotel with its hushed five star luxury, its private path to the falls, and its zebra skin drapes and kudu heads and sepia photos of locally famous white men.

Hawkers follow tourists down the street, waving wooden animals and bundles of worthless billion dollar notes. Agents compete to take them on day trips across the border, or send them bungee jumping, zip-lining and white-water rafting. The shops sell curios and postcards, souvenir t-shirts and safari suits with as many pockets as anyone could want. (The locals shop at markets out of town.) There is pizza and car hire, tapas and bureaux de change; there is French fine dining and Chinese takeaway. And there is Boma.

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A whole goat, on the bone, was splayed across a vertical frame in a fire pit and slowly cooked for hours so that the meat smoked while it grilled and the fat rendered down and fuelled the fire and the aroma filled the room. Marinated warthog steaks, eland meatballs and boerewors sausages were grilled to order in front of you. There were mounds of the polenta-like sadza, which I had read about in Doris Lessing, and found was the same thing as ugali in Kenya; and salads and soups and dried mopane worms – actually caterpillars – which you pick at and crunch like a bag of crisps.

I would miss Zimbabwe, but it was time, now, to move on: time to explore Botswana.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Part originally posted as ‘Smoke that Thunders’ on 11 September 2014

Zanzibar Night Market

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When the sun goes down, trestle tables go up in Forodhani Gardens in the middle of Stone Town in Zanzibar.

The tables are filled with lobsters, gleaming white squid, fat octopus tentacles, kingfish, marlin and tuna. Dozens of vendors light charcoal grills and wheel in juice presses like old-fashioned mangles. The crowds swarm in and jostle each other and the vendors shout and orders are placed and fish is thrown onto the grill. The juice man works at pit stop speed, forcing sugar cane through the press, folding it, forcing it through again, then again, and again, until it has given up all of its juice. Then he mixes in lime and ginger.

Squid is deceptively hard to get right. So many restaurants cook it too long, or not long enough. But the grill man knew better than that. He sliced it up with a few quick strokes and tipped it onto a paper plate with a handful of salad and a good squirt of chilli and tomalley sauce. He owed me some change but talked me into settling for a coconut bread. I ate the squid and the bread as I looked round the rest of the stalls, then replaced them with kingfish and green pepper skewers.

(c) Richard Senior 2014