Daniel Pelser, a 30-something nature lover from Durbin, keeps coming back to Cape Town. “I can’t stay away from it,” he says in the South African accent that still delights me every time I hear it. “Or maybe, it can’t stay away from me. I don’t know. One of the two.” He has a charming smile, a ruggedness to his green cargo pants and Birkenstock attire, a free-spiritedness to the way he talks about connecting with place.
He is telling us this as we hike up the hill from Greenmarket Square, where a group of about 12 of us have met to take a free walking tour for the next two hours. Because we’ve already been in Cape Town for a little over a week, we’ve decided to do the walking tour up to Bo-Kaap, an area of town I’d only seen from a distance as we whizzed by–or, more specifically, as we sat in a traffic jam–in our rented cargo van. From a distance, it is spectacular, a blur of the brightest pinks, purples, greens, reds, and blues you’ll ever see painted on the exteriors of houses. Each of them sits on cobblestones that have been there since at least the 18th century.
Bo Kaap literally means “above the cape.” It’s a Dutch word, brought in and made into Afrikaans, one of the eleven national languages in South Africa. As we trudge up the hill from the city center, we learn some of the basic facts: Still known to most Capetonians as the Malay Quarter (it used to be a township during the era of Apartheid), it is situated on the slopes of Signal Hill and is the historical center of–and current home to–thousands of the city’s Muslim citizens. Home to the city’s only mosque, Auwal Masjeed, which was built in 1794, many Muslims naturally settled here so they could be close to their place of worship. However, because of its beauty and its spectacular location, the area is also becoming hugely popular, and, to the disappointment of many of the area’s inhabitants, unnaturally gentrified.
The free tour (which is actually, really free–the docents work entirely on tips!), generally includes the following stops:
- The oldest mosque, Auwal Masjeed
- The residential neighborhood itself
- Biesmiellah Cape Malay Restaurant
- The Atlas Spice Trading Centre
- Chiappini Street
- Long Street and Bree Street
Though we don’t stop in the mosque, we pass by it as we walk up the hill to the top of the neighborhood. Some of us stop to take photos; others greet the Muslim mothers and fathers who are walking their children to school or heading to work themselves. It’s quiet up here, just a few streets but what seems like a world away from the chaos of Cape Town’s city center.
Daniel stops us in front of a stunning blue home with a fence all the way around it and asks us why we think the homes are so brilliantly colored. “The residents here will all tell you a different story,” he tells us. “So will the travel guides.”
He adds something that makes me realize how little I know about this place and the people who live. “None of them are entirely correct,” he says.
He gives us three potential stories and asks us to guess.
- A few decades ago, in anticipation of Ramadan and the upcoming celebration of Eid, a couple of Muslim residents decided to paint their homes in bright colors to celebrate their religious identity. Because the Christians didn’t paint their homes, it would be clear who was Muslim (and thus celebrating the holiday) and who was not. The trend caught on and soon lots of residents were painting their houses in complementary colors.
- Once, during a time when all the homes were still white, there was a doctor who painted his house red so that patients could find it. In similar fashion, the carpenter followed suit; then the shoemaker; then the baker. Soon, all the homes were color-coded according to the resident’s area of expertise.
- In 1994, when Apartheid finally fell and South Africa became known as “the rainbow nation,” the residents painted their homes brilliant colors of the rainbow to draw attention to themselves and remind the nation that history could never, ever repeat itself.
I like all of the stories. Frankly, I don’t really want to know which one is true.
I’m conflicted about myself–and my place here. Daniel tells us that people just up on the colorful stoops and pose for pictures; that they stick their heads in peoples’ open windows and try to snap a photo of whatever they’re doing inside; that they stomp on peoples’ flower beds and clog up the streets when they stop to take a bunch of selfies. “I know none of you will do that,” he says, covering his bases, “but there’s always–always–that one person who does.”
If–and when–you go, you should take photos. It’s absolutely spectacular. I did. But remember that a colorful house is not just a spectacle–it’s where someone sleeps, brushes their teeth, pets their cat, and helps children with homework in the evenings. It’s Bo Kaap, an area worth preserving exactly as it is, for as long as it can.
Article and photographs by Kristin Winet. A special thanks to Rollins College for sponsoring her trip to South Africa and introducing her to Cape Town.