The Many Faces of Bo-Kaap


Monday, January 28, 2008, 11:39 AM
Posted by Ashley Dischinger


 On Thursday, January 10, our class was able to experience a small taste of the South African Muslim community during our visit to Bo-Kaap. Since most of our experiences to date have focused on apartheid through the eyes of the black and colored populations, it was interesting to explore South Africa’s history through the perspective of a different group of people.
We began our afternoon with lunch at the Biesmillah Restaurant in the Malay Quarters of Bo-Kaap. This unique lunch allowed us to sample some of the traditional Muslim dishes, such as curried chicken and beef, rice, and a vast array of fried egg-roll type appetizers. While at the restaurant, our tour guide gave us a brief history of Bo-Kaap. We learned that when the Dutch East India Trading Company first arrived to colonize what is now South Africa, they would actually burn down the villages of the natives, stripping them of their names, religions, and essentially their identities. The Company also enslaved many of the natives and forced them to convert to the Islamic faith. Throughout the imperialistic rule of the Dutch and the British, the Muslim population began to grow and thrive, with today’s Muslim population in the Bo-Kaap community estimated to be around 300,000.
After lunch we visited a small museum dedicated to the many “faces of Bo-Kaap” where we learned even more about the community’s history. Our tour guide stressed the fact that apartheid is often seen as only affecting 2 populations: whites versus blacks; in actuality, there were a total of 17 groups affected by apartheid, including Muslims. She also pointed out that the Muslim community is not necessarily comprised of those of Arabic or Middle Eastern descent, but rather of a diverse group of backgrounds. We viewed an exhibit in the museum which further emphasized the diversity of Bo-Kaap. The exhibit consisted of photographs by a man whose work was previously banned during apartheid, due to his skin being “coloured.” The theme of his work was the diversity found within the Muslim communities of Cape Town. There were countless photos capturing important events in the Islamic faith- marriages, funerals, people worshipping at mosques, etc. But most of his work consisted of Muslim men, women, and children of all ages doing everyday things (such as working, hugging, or sharing a laugh.) One wall in the back of the exhibit, entitled “The Many Faces of Bo-Kaap”, was simply a montage of head shots of individuals… as if to remind us of the diversity within the Muslim community.
Our last stop of the day was to the oldest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere. It was a pleasant surprise when we were told we would be able to enter the mosque (as tourists, especially females, are rarely allowed to enter this sacred place of worship.) After removing our shoes, we sat in the middle of the worshipping space, surrounded by beautiful inscriptions of lines from the Qur’an on all of the walls- a staple of the artwork of mosques around the world. Here, our tour guide talked to us about the function of the mosque and a little more about Islam. One of the more impressive things we learned is that children as young as 6 or 7 are able to recite lines from the Quar’an, which is obviously quite a feat for someone that young, and reflects the discipline of the faith.
In all, our experience at the Muslim community of Bo-Kaap was both interesting and informative. I think many of us found it to be a change of pace, in that it allowed us to see another side of apartheid. Though the Muslims living in Cape Town were forced to attain new identities following colonization, became enslaved, and later suffered during the apartheid rule, they still retain a strong sense of identity and faith as we saw in our experience today at Bo-Kaap.

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