We met on a clear and sunny Saturday morning on the steps of the Iziko Bo-Kaap Museum at 71 Wale Street. The museum has just recently opened an exhibition after scholar Halim Gençoĝlu uncovered new details about the house’s history and connection with the notable Effendi family of Cape Town. Meeting us was Bilqees Baker, a qualified tour guide and also a long-time resident of and community activist for the Bo-Kaap. We began our walk from the museum to the Auwal Masjid (Mosque), the first and oldest mosque established in 1794 in Cape Town. Bliqees relayed the story of Coridon of Ceylon, a manumitted slave and the first Muslim to own property at the Cape and how his warehouse here on the corner of Dorp and Buitengracht eventually became the first mosque in southern Africa. Tuan Guru became its first imam and this also became the location of the first madrassa or school for Muslims at the Cape.
Walking over to the Nurul Islam Mosque just around the corner, Bliqees told us the story of how Coridon’s wife Trijn van de Kaap and subsequently her daughter, Saartjie, inherited the building and the prominent role Muslim women had in Cape Muslim history. Of particular note included discussions on naming customs in the Cape at the time of slavery (and therefore names like ‘van de Kaap’). From there, we walked to the famous Atlas spice shop where Bliqees talked about the flavours of Cape Malay cuisine as an organic development from the unique intersections and flows of cultures and people here at the Cape and we tried some common local sweets and savoury snacks.
From here we progressed to the archway that stands as a throughway between Wale up to Upper Dorp to meet Galija, a Bo-Kaap resident who was selling some of her home-baked goodies and the discussion turned towards local community activism and group efforts with charity, assisting the poor and soup kitchens, especially at this time of year – it was Ramadan. Ramadan is a holy month in the Islamic calendar in which Muslims fast between sunrise to sunset and there is an accentuated attentiveness to charity and almsgiving, and caring for those in need. Bliqees begins to discuss some of the current challenges facing the Bo-Kaap, particularly that of rising rates and intrusive high-rise block developments as a result of gentrification. Consequences include concerns over respect and consideration of the neighbourhood’s history and residents, and the high levels of tourism that has begun to bring in more crime. Although recently it has won heritage status as a protected neighbourhood, there are still unknowns as to what kinds of protections, restrictions, and benefits this designation will entail.
From here we walk sharply uphill to Tana Baru to visit the kramats that have survived. The first pieces of land comprising Tana Baru, meaning “New Ground,” was granted to Frans van Bengalen in 1805 after religious freedom was granted to Muslims at the Cape in 1804. Several notable figures in Cape Muslim history are buried here, including Tuan Guru of the Auwal Masjid, Abu Bakr Effendi – a scholar and educationalist who opened one of the earliest Muslim schools at the corner of Bree and Wale Streets, and others. There is also a small Chinese precinct at Tana Baru which have burials that dates back to 1772. In 1886, as a response to several disease epidemics at the Cape, the authorities closed Tana Baru. The Cape Muslim community saw this as a violation of their religious freedom. When a 12-year old child passed away, the community banded together under Abdol Burns and 3000 Muslims joined in a funeral procession to bury the child at Tana Baru. Burns and 12 others were arrested for this.
When we walked into the first Kramat – that of Tuan Guru’s, we could see that fresh incense had just been lit. Bliqees tells us that often we’d find residents of the Bo-Kaap who would walk to these kramats just for sanctuary, a quiet place to pray and reflect. The second kramat was that of Tuan Sayed Alawi, who was from Mocca in Yemen, but was probably brought to the Cape via Indonesia, where he had been working as a missionary. The grave for Paay Schaapie was also pointed out, as well as the small fenced off burial of the 12-year old child, who was the last person to be buried at Tana Baru.
The tour then ended with a homemade lunch in the Bo-Kaap home of Mymoena Saunders on Yusuf Drive. The tour was educational and inspiring, in no small part because it was led by a resident — the history is fascinating, but it is the personal touches, the anecdotes of someone who also is able to just tell stories of what it is like to live in the neighbourhood, to be a member of that community that makes all the difference. For a visitor, it is through these touches with Bliqees’ warm and engaging storytelling about her experiences living here, seeing her greet neighbours along the tour, and tell anecdotes the way that one might hear if they also lived in the neighbourhood — this is what brings the Bo-Kaap alive. To top it off with an authentic Cape Malay lunch, especially during Ramadan, it is something very special indeed.
By: Evie Wong
For further reading:
New exhibition retells Bo-Kaap Museum story
The Effendis of 71 Wale Street, Bo-Kaap
History of the Auwal Masjid
18 May 2019