Imagine if you will narrow cobbled streets strung with continuous rows of low-roofed houses, sitting under an imposing mountain backdrop and bright blue skies. Now pop on your imaginary sunnies and paint those houses in varying shades of canary yellow, cobalt blue, perky purple, retina searing pink and acid green. Sounds a little unreal right? Not in the Bo Kaap, where it is a reality so colourful that you could be forgiven for thinking a unicorn threw up on it.
Quirky, charismatic and oh, so colourful, the Bo Kaap is situated on the slopes of Signal Hill above the Cape Town city centre and under the shadow of Table Mountain.
And, as one of the oldest urban residential areas in the city, it is not only steeped in rich history but, for better or worse, saturated with instahappy tourists in search of the perfect selfie.
The first buildings in Bo Kaap (which means “above the cape” in English) were built in the 1700s to house slaves imported from India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia by the Dutch East India Company.
The Eastern slaves, often highly skilled in crafts, were considered too useful to be employed in agriculture and were purchased by Burghers in town, usually at a high price, and were housed in Slave Lodges. Dating back to 1679, the Iziko Slave Lodge, about 600 metres from Wale Street and it’s coloured houses, is the second oldest building in South Africa and served not only as a lodge for hundreds of slaves, but as the first post office, library and supreme court. It’s now a museum and well worth a visit.
These predominantly Muslim slaves and their descendants became known as Cape Malays and with them brought their own fragrant native spices and dishes, which formed the beginnings of the distinctive cuisine I smell wafting temptingly from the street vendors that still dot the area.
Construction on the Auwal Mosque in Dorp Street, one of around ten mosques in Bo Kaap and the oldest in South Africa, began in 1794. Remarkably, the first Imam is said to have written the mosque’s first copies of the Quran from memory.
The faithful, however, weren’t allowed to recite it or practice their religion in public until after the British seized power of Cape Town a few years later.
In the 1830s the British abolished the slave trade and the emancipated slaves settled in the Bo Kaap.
The once white houses suddenly burst into every colour imaginable as each year the residents began slapping on coats of high impact paint to brighten their homes for Eid, the religious holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.
In the mid-twentieth century, the Apartheid government – who made mixing with people from a different racial “category” a crime – declared the Bo Kaap a Muslim-only area and forced people of other religions and ethnicity to relocate, creating a closed but close-knit community.
The freedom of post-apartheid South Africa brought with it many positives and opened up the world to the Bo Kaap residents, but while it retains much of its character, the area is fast becoming gentrified, meaning many of its original residents, and its history, are sadly being lost to hipster filled cafes and soaring house prices and rents.
With the pretty coloured houses now a popular tourist attraction, it is important for visitors to remember the rich history that created the backdrop for the snazzy selfie they’re seeking. But they should also consider that the sunshiney bright houses we are photographing are still people’s homes and the occupants are deserving of privacy – something a few selfie stick wielding tourists (not this selfie phobic author) appeared to have forgotten as they flagrantly trespassed on people’s property the morning I visited.
The Bo Kaap is a must visit in Cape Town that doesn’t cost a dime but neither does showing a little respect.