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Beautiful Bo-Kaap

Pink, yellow, green . . .

. . . orange, red, purple, pink, white, mustard, turquoise.

My mind reads each new color my eyes encounter, this wonderful wall of bright stripes along the street–each one a different house with a different family living inside.

The Bo-Kaap is a bouquet of flowers–from the first time I reached the top of Table Mountain, I spotted the tight pack of city blocks below painted with Easter-egg colors, crouched on a hill next to Cape Town’s city center with all of its more serious, grown-up buildings: beige, gray, off-white.

I simply follow the colors until the streets rises upward and I step into the rainbow world of the Bo-Kaap. The Cape Malay “coloreds” live here, I’m told, by nearly everyone in Cape Town. The houses are colored and so are the people, they say.

But it wasn’t always this colorful. Not so very long ago, the Bo-Kaap was an excluded working-class quarter, the quiet quarter on the hillside where colored folks lived and from where they commuted to their jobs in the city.

Apartheid made some neighborhoods “safe”; others it destroyed completely. The failed policies of racial segregation froze parts of Cape Town into a strange limbo, as happened in the Bo-Kaap–or “upper cape” in Afrikaans.

Only after apartheid lost its legal grasp did the Bo-Kaap erupt into color. The whitewashed rental properties of low-wage labor became houses, now owned by the families who had lived in them for generations. Each new color that appeared was a bold statement of fact–not a mere light in the window hinted a human might live inside, but a great visual shout: We LIVE here.

Today, the Bo-Kaap has its own color, literal and figurative, as well as its own sounds and flavors. The Muslim call to prayer echoes in the air five times a day–the oldest mosque in South Africa is here in the Bo-Kaap. Children play soccer in the streets, kicking a ball up and down the narrow, sloped lanes.

From kitchen windows, cafes, and restaurants come the magical smells of Cape Malay cooking–a fabulous fusion of Indonesian, Indian, and Afrikaans cuisine. Among the wide array of food in Cape Town, Cape Malay is the silent favorite. A Xhosa acquaintance is the first to admit it, “The food of my own culture is not so inspiring, just like that of the Dutch. But Cape Malay food is . . . wow. I love it.”

It might sound simplistic, but food and faith hold the Bo-Kaap together–even now, when the world is suddenly fascinated by the neighborhood’s character and residents must cope with rising property values and uitlanders (foreigners) moving in.

“During Ramadan, I make cakes for all my neighbors,” explains renowned cook and Bo-Kaap resident Faldela Tolker. “I want to be sure that everyone has something nice to eat after fasting.” Faldela goes on to explain how tight-knit the Bo-Kaap is today and how much she loves the area’s warm and welcoming Muslim culture.

“We all come together like a glove,” she says, grateful for the support she finds in her neighborhood. When her kitchen caught on fire, did she call the fire department? No. She called a neighbor instead, and her neighbor’s son rushed over and extinguished the flames.

This makes me wonder about my own neighborhood back home. If my kitchen caught on fire, would I call my neighbor, or would I call 911? Too many of us live in cities where we trust strangers more than our neighbors.

I am learning this, at least, about Cape Town. That there are many different cities here, each of them somewhat self-reliant (like the Bo-Kaap) and all of them melting back together ever so slowly, creating a new and fascinating city that is far more colorful than ever before.

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