Exploring the culture, food and aesthetics in the Bo-Kaap.

January 1, 1970

by Shaharazaad Louw

The Bo-Kaap is one of the most famous areas, located in l 71 Wale St, Cape Town, South Africa. Despite all the attraction surrounding the area, seeing it for yourself is not an underwhelming experience but lives up to those expectations.

The Bo-Kaap background

‘Bo-Kaap’ is not the only name it goes by, the area is also known as the Malay Quarter due to the rich history that surrounds it. If you’re familiar with the dance movies series Honey, and you feel as if you’ve heard about the Bo-Kaap in a well-known movie before, that’s probably because the setting in Honey 3 takes place in Cape Town, featuring scenes in the Bo-Kaap.

Defining features of the B0-Kaap

When I visited the Bo-Kaap I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but as you drive towards the slopes of Signal Hill, you begin to notice an array of colours, like colourful cotton candy stacked and waiting for you. It’s not cotton candy but in fact houses. This is the most defining feature of the Bo-Kaap.

The colourful houses and cobblestone streets

You step out onto cobblestone streets and that is your guide. The idea is to follow the cobblestone streets as it leads you through a row of pastel and vivid colours of painted houses on each side of you. There is no conformity here, it was painted this way to stick out and demand attention. Each house is a contrasting colour to the one next to it. There is no yard space for these houses, each one is built directly beside the other, in the distinct Cape Georgian and Cape Dutch architectural styles. The residents of the home come out of their homes and watch as a streamline of tourists walk through their streets taking pictures of their homes, and subsequently pictures of them too.  As you make your way further in you see more and more people, some in groups with a tour guide, teaching them about the history of the Bo-Kaap. Be prepared to meet your favourite blogger or photographer, as they courteously ask you to take ‘just three steps back please’, as you’re in their shot or blocking the lighting.

The atmosphere and culture in the Bo-Kaap

The atmosphere is welcoming and exciting, as you carry on through the streets, thinking the end of the road must be soon ahead, only to turn the corner and find yourself staring further down at a multitude of houses, and mosques with incredibly detailed architecture. Each shop owner and resident waves with a proud smile on their faces, as I’m sure they’re all considered as much of an attraction as their house is. Because these residents know how big of an attraction their homes are, some use the opportunity to even broadcast activism posters on their windows, ensuring that while people are there, a message is sent. Some people use the opportunity to advertise their artwork on street corners, showcasing their talents.

While walking amongst the houses, we were suddenly hit with the distinct scent of koeksisters, which is a confectionary made of fried dough which is then dipped in syrup and sprinkled with coconut. It is said that the Malay people make the best koeksisters, and what is said is true. I know this because upon smelling them, we asked the artist on the corner if he knew which house it was coming from, and he pointed us in the direction of a shocking pink house. After knocking on the door and asking the lady of the house whether she could sell us a dozen, we all took turns taking pictures with her, her striking pink house in the background, and yes – the box of dozen koeksisters in our hand.

Sliding between the passageways of houses and finding myself back on the cobblestone streets, I had found myself in another area of the Bo-Kaap where these houses seemed to be colour-coded into shades of blue and grey, with palm trees featuring on each side. It’s like an image straight out of a magazine. Walking around in the Bo-Kaap had turned out to be like going on an adventure of its own, a maze, and perhaps even a treasure hunt, not knowing what little jewels and treasures one would come across. I could not see an end in sight. There is a breathtaking view in whichever way you look, whether it be towards a collection of cotton candy houses, a beautiful mosque among the hustle and bustle, or Signal Hill.

Here is a picture which was taken by me while on holiday in Cape Town, featuring a resident of the Bo-Kaap standing on his balcony.

A mural depicting the Malay culture in the Bo-Kaap

Making my way back down from the shades of blue, I found myself walking down a route that leads to into a tunnel. On the inside of the tunnel is a depiction of Malay culture and the history surrounding the history surrounding this area, all done in beautiful graffiti and mural art. If there is one defining aspect of Cape Town, it is the artistry. There is no better way to depict that than houses that have themselves become art, and a tunnel narrating its history through the language of art. This tunnel is a central point in the Bo-Kaap. With tour guides and their groups of people flocking around to see the history and culture panned out in front of them.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking – that it all seems like an awful lot of walking. But it truly is the only way to experience the Bo-Kaap in full capacity. And if you’re looking for a way to regain all that energy, one word – food.

Food in the Bo-Kaap

There is a little restaurant towards the top end of the Bo-Kaap, Biesmiellah Restuarant. At this restaurant, I ate one of the best tasting Gatsby’s I had eaten in a long time. And yes, Leonardo DiCaprio is yummy, but we’re not talking about The Great Gatsby. This Gatsby is simply a combination of chips (French fries), and depending on your selection – lamb, steak, beef, boerewors, viennas (sausages), and spices for flavouring. The meat you’ve chosen, chips, and sauces, are then stuffed into a medium-to-long bread roll. You are also then asked how spicy you would like it to be, and they add the spices accordingly. Thereafter, all you do is wait until your order is ready to pick up. And perhaps my description doesn’t entice you as much as it should, it truly does sound like a combination of foods – but it works.

There are many wondrous places to visit in Cape Town, South Africa. They are all within different atmospheres and regions, and my following articles will inform you about all that I have experienced. But for now, thank you for reliving this Bo-Kaap journey with me.


Shaharazaad Louw

By Shaharazaad Louw

English and Psychology student at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. Being a student, exploring your surroundings can be difficult, Let’s explore it together through these articles.

Read more at shaharazaadlouw.com

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