Four friends enjoy the new Cape Town Carnival that has been held every March since 2010. It is a small scale event compared to the New Year Minstrel Carnival but is designed to encourage participants from every community in the city.
Cape Town – Long Read

Streets filled with the scent of spices

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Cape Town – Long Read Streets filled with the scent of spices

Hello Cape Town, one of the world’s most beautiful cities, sitting under Table Mountain and surrounded by glorious vineyards and ocean. One of its prettiest neighborhoods is Bo-Kaap, where the colorful homes of the Cape Malays reflect the diverse origins of a community fighting to preserve their unique identity in streets filled with the scent of spices from distant homelands.

Ian Gill
Ian Gill Writer

Every day except Sunday the Noon Gun rings out across Cape Town from Signal Hill, just as it has done for the last 200 years. As tourists jump in surprise and Capetonians check their watches, a puff of white smoke blows off the hill, a tiny cousin of the cloud that so often shrouds Table Mountain. The view from Signal Hill is also not as grand as the one from Cape Town’s most famous landmark but it comes into its own in the evening, when couples park their cars to admire the city looking its best under a kindly blanket of lights.

At dusk, I hear another sound: the call of the mosques of Bo-Kaap, the community of brightly-painted houses that decorate the lower slopes of Signal Hill. These are some of the oldest houses in the country, dating back to between 1750 and 1850 and have been home to Cape Malays since 1790.

A distinct part of the so-called “Coloured” community, Cape Malays are largely descendants of Asians, a mix of slaves, skilled workmen and political exiles brought in by the Dutch from the mid 17th century onwards when the indigenous Africans refused to work for the European invaders. They brought their Muslim religion with them and in Bo-Kaap you still can see men wearing kufeers (fezzes) and women in headscarves, as well as boys in Islamic robes. On their way home from madrasas, the youths carry both their books of religious instruction and footballs, a hint of the changes facing this intimate community of perhaps 6,000 people.

Apart from the regular calls to prayer from its ten mosques, Bo-Kaap is a place of exotic smells. A local institution is Atlas Trading Company, where colorful spices in wooden containers give off the nostalgic aroma of faraway homelands. These spices make their way into the curries, whose smell wafts from Bo-Kapp’s kitchens, and the other Cape Malay dishes that are now a distinctive part of Cape Town’s cuisine. My first taste of bobotie, made from curried ground beef, dried fruit and rice topped with savory custard, was instantly addictive.

It mirrors the resilience of an oft-embattled community

The best place to eat the food is Kombuis (Afrikaans for “kitchen”), a modern steel-and-glass restaurant with amazing views built atop a guest house run by Yusuf Larney. A stocky, energetic man who says his Cape Malay origins include Irish blood – which might explain his gift for the blarney as well as his name – Larney mirrors the resilience of an oft-embattled community. Apartheid forced him out of Cape Town to a township on the arid Cape Flats, but he bounced back to become a successful entrepreneur and helped win a long battle for council house dwellers to own their homes. Now he is a guardian of Cape Malay culinary treasures.

Kombuis serves dishes such as sugar bean curry, meatballs wrapped in cabbage, crayfish curry and potato pudding with stewed dried fruit. Denningvleis, made with lamb marinated with tamarind, but originally with water buffalo, is sensational. He is shy of disclosing secrets, but he does say: “Our forefathers said that, to get the ‘burst’ of flavor, you must roast your spices before using them in curries and breyani.”

Larney calls this Cape Malay food, with its mix of influences from Arabia to Indonesia, “cuisine franca”. A similar mélange gave rise to the community’s musical tradition (see mini-feature “Cape Jazz”). It began with the Cape Malays’ “Hollandse liedjies,” or Dutch songs, that can be traced to 1834 when the slaves celebrated their emancipation with emotional songs of freedom. This evolved into Cape Malay choirs that sang from house to house and into today’s Klopse Carnival, a major Cape Town festival that ushers in the New Year. The sounds are a blend of African and western influences.

Cuisine and music are only part of the community’s cultural heritage, the result of a turbulent history that is on view at the Bo-Kaap museum in a former Cape Dutch house in the heart of the district. The museum, which includes a photographic display of residents, reflects a pride in triumphing over tribulation.

The Dutch banned Islam under pain of death

Many Cape Malays are tracing their own melting-pot roots, encouraged by closer ties with their countries of origin. Under apartheid, Indonesia and Malaysia supported the opposition ANC (African National Congress) and since 1994 have forged closer diplomatic, trade and cultural ties with South Africa.

Sitting in the museum’s courtyard, Fasiegh Salie, a wiry, kindly assistant Imam who can trace his family back 200 years, relates why his community became so closely woven. “The Dutch banned Islam under pain of death,” he says. “We had Sufi leaders who stayed in the mountains and the elders would go up and meet them and recite the Koran to mark our Sabbath.” Schooling was also prohibited, he says, but the Cape Malays secretly taught their children in madrasas or neighborhood classes.

Salie studied commerce at university but was restricted to clerical work under apartheid, so he moved to neighboring Botswana. There he worked in a senior accounting position for an international company for nearly 20 years, sending his children to private schools. He returned to Cape Town in 1988 to start a tour business.

While the earlier British era brought religious freedom and an end to slavery, times remained hard for the Cape Malays but the darkest days came with apartheid. In the late 1960s, the apartheid government tried to disperse the community and move them out of the city. The struggle brought out the best in this gritty enclave. “We were strong and we were educated, we had good lawyers and we looked at all the loopholes,” recalls Salie. Bo-Kaap won the fight for its life, and stayed put.

The darkest days came with apartheid

Apartheid proved to be the glue that bound them tighter. Osman Achmat, one of Bo-Kaap’s oldest residents, recalls the time of his youth. “Cape Malay traders came in ox wagons from the countryside to sell wood and farm products and the streets were lively and full of fun,” he recalls. But at work, it was a different tale. He worked as a dispatch clerk for an insurance company for 20 years. “The worst thing was being with colleagues but not being able to join them after work, and not being allowed to use the same toilet facilities,” he says.

The coming to power of Nelson Mandela brought promise – but the results have been mixed. The Western Cape, where Coloureds still outnumber black people, supports the Democratic Alliance in local elections, with twice the votes of the ruling ANC. The government is accused of neglecting the region in response. What is clear is that the ANC’s black employment empowerment program has put Coloured people at a disadvantage. They have to make way for black people, who are sometimes brought in from outside to fill positions.

With positive discrimination, people still have to be categorized as black or white and the Coloured population remain stuck in the middle: “not white enough under apartheid, and not black under the ANC,” as many of them say. The problem is compounded for the Cape Malays, who lead different apart from other Coloured people, usually Christian and with Khoi and San roots.

“Cape Malays are bitter and many parents complain because their children aren’t getting work,” says Larney. The results are evident at a Bo-Kaap street corner where a group of teenagers is chilling out. Asked about job prospects, one girl shakes her head while others shrug. National unemployment is running at around 25 per cent, and is double that in the 15-24 age group. The community is fighting back with a program to attract tourism, offering cookery classes, home stays, craft markets and guided walks that will bring in money and provide employment.

A mix of colonial architectural features

Although the BKNW (Bo Kaap Neighbourhood Watch) ensures this is still one of Cape Town’s safest areas for visitors, a rise in crime sees traditional openness and hospitality now laced with wariness. “You’d better be careful,” a girl warns. “With your camera, you’re a target for muggers.” She hastens to add that most crime is committed by outsiders.

“We are not as homogenous as before,” says Abdul Bassier, a manager in the city’s public transport administration. “Cultural practices are changing dramatically because of opportunities that have opened up in education and business. In the past, we were a single community, but now we have lower, middle and high income classes. People don’t look down on each other and we all go to the same mosque, but customs are altering.”

A walk through Bo-Kaap, a stiff but very short climb from the popular backpacker haunt of Long Street, is a popular part of any tourist itinerary. The colorful houses are a mix of colonial architectural features, from British Georgian windows to ornate Dutch gables. Women sit on the “skinner bankie”, or gossip bench, built into the raised patios that front most houses, greeting passing neighbors or keeping an eye on children playing in the street.

At a small café, I enjoy an afternoon snack of coffee and koeksisters, sugary doughnut twists that are another Cape Malay gift to South African cuisine. From the window, I watch a white wedding couple having their portraits taken against the rich background colors. “The houses reflect the colorful personalities of the people,” says Larney. “The people are vibrant, musical, sport crazy, and they love singing.”

While millionaires on paper, most here are remain working people

Bo-Kaap’s obvious appeal is also a problem. Attracted by its charm, awesome view of Table Mountain and nearness to the city center, outsiders are buying up property. As white South African and foreign buyers move in, the rates bill is soaring in line with property values and some Cape Malays are struggling to pay. While millionaires on paper, most here are remain working people. The alternative is to cash in and move to bigger, cheaper homes elsewhere.

Modern education and entertainment are also bringing change. In the past, Muslim elders discouraged “secular” education at high school as an adverse Christian influence, but today tertiary education is regarded as an investment in the future.

Some, like Nazli Kasu, Yusuf Larney’s business partner, are delighted with the new horizons. A vivacious woman with a yen for travel, Kasu had wanted to be a nurse, but her mother died when she was 13 and, as the eldest daughter, she had to look after three sisters and three brothers while completing school.

Her father had a passion for electronics but, in the repressive atmosphere of apartheid, had to conduct his studies through a correspondence course with an international school. He repaired the neighborhood radios, which made the authorities suspect he was a spy and the police frequently raided their home and carted off equipment.

“Because of our own limited opportunities,” says Kasu, “I always encourage children not to waste time standing on corners, but to climb a mountain, or go to the beach and see the sea urchins at low tide, or go to the book fairs or the planetarium. Do something different and have dreams.”

Weddings were always held in the home

Others are less sanguine. “The Muslim community, especially the youth, has not been immune to the influence of the Internet, Hollywood and video games,” says Bassier. In many ways, people feel the freedom offered by our secular state has resulted in the moral decline of society at large.” We talk in his home in Sachs Street, the interior of which is neat and conservative, with traditional furniture in subdued browns in contrast with the bold yellow of the exterior. His youthful wife, in a Muslim veil, moves around unobtrusively as we sip tea in the lounge under a painting of Abdul’s late father.

His father, a tailor, encouraged all his children to pursue tertiary studies and, as a result, his siblings include two doctors, a dentist and a teacher. But, like his father before him, he was also an Imam and Bassier is so concerned about waning practices that he is involved in publishing pamphlets with traditional recipes as well as guides on Islamic history and practices. He wants to promote “a greater appreciation of our very rich and proud heritage, especially among the youth.” He notes that two Muslim radio stations in Cape Town are also “an effective medium to counter negative influences by showing positive role models.”

Some time-honored customs are waning. “Weddings were always held in the home, with everyone pitching in to help,” he says. “These days, wedding receptions among the better off tend to be held in posh places like hotels.”

They slice orange leaves and mix them with oil of roses

Practices that remain popular, however, include merang, a religious ceremony followed by feasting, and barakat, the slave custom of taking food to those who could not attend the festivities. Also widely practised is rampies, the cutting of orange leaves to mark the Prophet’s birthday, Mawlid, another slave tradition imported from Indonesia. Girls and women dressed in silk dresses handed down from mother to daughter walk in procession to the mosques, where they slice orange leaves and mix them with oil of roses. The streets and homes of Bo-Kaap are filled with the scent of the mixture which is put into sachets decorated with a fresh rose and left at the mosque. In the evening, the men come in their turn to say prayers. Afterwards, they carry the sachets home to scent clothes and wardrobes throughout the coming year, with the roses becoming a gift to their wife.

Despite being tugged increasingly in different directions, such ceremonies show that Bo-Kaap’s sense of identity remains intact and powerful.

Ikraam September, here to visit with his sister, captures both the lure of Bo-Kaap and the dilemma facing many of the new generation. Born in Bo-Kaap, he moved as an infant to his mother’s home town of Port Elizabeth where he now lives and works.

“I’d come back to Bo-Kaap in a heartbeat,” he says. “If only I could find a job.”

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