A Walk Through Bo Kaap: Cape Town's Colourful Neighbourhood
January 1, 1970
by Kirstyn Liang
The city centre of South Africa’s tourist capital, Cape Town, is filled with life. From hipster cafes and boutique stores to local markets and artisan restaurants. But what many are not aware of, is the quiet cluster of multicoloured houses that lie just above this business bustle. Literally translated, Bo Kaap means ‘above the Cape’, which effectively nods at its cosy placement at the top of the CBD. Marked with strings of flags that lead passersby up the area’s steep cobblestone streets, you can follow the road up Wale street to explore this vibrant neighbourhood on foot. As a Capetonian born and bred, this walk from Long and Bree street all the way up to Wale is one of my favourite routes to take visitors along. It allows you to pass town’s main nightlife, office blocks and trendy hangouts and leads you to a somewhat hidden gem of perfectly laid hues sitting pretty above the city.
The History Behind the Colours
Formerly known as the Malay Quarter, Bo Kaap has been home to much of the city’s Muslim population since the late 1700s. Dutch colonialists of that time bought the land and rented it out to slaves that were sent to the Cape from Malaysia, Indonesia and other African counties. After many years of imperialism and strife, these white houses were painted different colours by the Malays when they could finally have ownership of the properties. During Apartheid, the government tried to take their freedom again, but these colours were used as a secret code for the community. In order to remain self-sufficient, each trade or service on offer was indicated by a particular colour. If someone needed a mechanic, for example, they would go to a blue house. Or if they needed a tailor they would go to an orange house, or whichever represented tailors at that time. This way the people of Bo Kaap could remain dignified and supported in their work, and close-knit as a community with colourful open secrets. These codes are no longer used today, but the houses maintain their tradition of being re-painted brightly each year.
Free Walking Tour
It is clear that this area is so much more than an avenue of highly Instagrammable backdrops (although it would be a shame to not take a few candid photos in this oh-so-aesthetic setting). Luckily you can learn much more about its history from a charismatic guide when you join a free walking tour. They happen twice a day (2 pm and 4:20 pm) and start at the Mandela Rhodes building. I highly suggest going if you’d like to leave with a deeper understanding of Cape Town’s history. They also point out the most photogenic spots, as well as the Bo Kaap Museum at 71 Wale street.
What to Eat
After all that uphill walking, you’re going to want to treat yourself to a snack. And there is no better place to chomp your way through Bo Kaap’s food history than at Biesmiellah restaurant and corner store. You can find this food haven at the very top of Wale street. Make sure to dig into the local favourites of koeksisters, samoosas, curry puffs, and savoury pies. Once your sweet tooth kicks in, indulge in a miniature milktart to end off your culinary journey on the go.
Koeksisters and Anthropology
As a personal anecdote, Bo Kaap is a bit of a sentimental place for me. During the first year of my BA degree, my Anthropology project was to find Malay or Afrikaans families that made their own koeksisters using inherited recipes. It felt like an incredibly daunting task, but I plucked up the courage and walked, notebook in hand, from one colourful door to another. Much to my surprise, every person welcomed my enquiries with friendly concern and pointed me in the direction of residents who were known for their koeksister magic. The chef of the house (usually the mother or grandmother figure) would greet me with familiar warmth, and offer me a seat on the couch. After flipping through photo albums of their children and children’s children, I’d be lead to the kitchen where secret koeksister recipes were shared from faded pages or off the top of their heads. Each cook had a different twist, a unique ingredient or rolling method that would set their batch apart. I scribbled down as much as I could absorb as notes for my own baking trials for class later.
How Food and History Intertwine
You may be wondering: What exactly do koeksisters have to do with Anthropology? Well, as I stayed in these houses and learnt more about the recipes, it became quite clear. No koeksister story came without a plethora of other tales. From family traditions and neighbourhood gossip to cultural practices and painful histories. Each batch of koeksisters was baked with love and reverence for the people of Bo Kaap, and the ancestral heritage that brought these recipes to foreign soil. The mixing of African and European and Asian influences that come together and are laid neatly on the table, every night. Culture may be lost and distorted and reborn in different forms, but food always packages these histories in a palatable way. Nostalgic for all that is past, and all that will continue to be passed down in these precious recipes.
Things to Remember
Something to keep in mind while making your way through Bo Kaap is that the neighbourhood is, above all, an active place of residence. It may be promoted as a tourist attraction (as even I am encouraging here), but it is most importantly private property. You are never discouraged from taking photographs or enjoying the beautiful area, but it is always good to stay mindful and respectful when making your way through. If residents are near their houses, ask them for permission before you photograph them or their property. Greet the people around you and even strike up a conversation if they seem willing to engage. It makes it all the more fruitful for everyone to enjoy the open and hospitable nature of this happy hood.