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Bo-Kaap: Exploring Cape Town’s Colorful Neighborhood with a Local

29Today was a treat.  Darren arranged a tour with a very special woman in a very special district: Bo-Kaap, also known as the Malay Quarter.

A Bit of Background

Our guide was Shereen Misbach-Habib.  She is a politician, author, tour guide and a gifted storyteller.  She grew up in Bo-Kaap under the apartheid government and provided valuable insights and stories that only a local could.

Bo-Kaap is a five minute walk from Cape Town’s business district and yet feels a world away.  The 300 year-old neighborhood is 90% Muslim with a rich history of multiculturalism, tolerance, struggle and triumph.

The residents are mostly descendants of slaves who were imported by the Dutch and brought from Indonesia, Java Malaysia, and elsewhere in Asia and Africa.  The people were referred to as “Cape Malays” which is not accurate because many were not Malaysian, but the name stuck.

Too much history to be explained in a blog post; I’d have to write a novel, but suffice it to say, it’s fascinating.

Finally, after years of hardship, Bo-kaap is having it’s moment in the sun.  But with that light, also comes scorching.  Gentrification is wreaking havoc on the neighborhood.

The Tour of Bo-Kaap

We met at the Bo-Kaap Museum which is located at 71 Wale Street in Cape Town.

Auwal Mosque

Auwal Mosque: The oldest mosque in South Africa.

Our first stop was Auwal Mosque, South Africa’s oldest mosque (built in 1794) where we removed our shoes and I needed to cover my hair with a scarf.  Inside, women were seated on the floor preparing sachets for some event, carefully wrapping leaves sprayed with lemon oil in thin pieces of paper.

This was my first visit to a mosque!  And while not part of the tour I was intrigued with the wall-to-wall mosque carpeting which simulates individual mats laid out side by side and pointed in the direction of Mecca.

In the mosque, Shereen shared some of her experiences during the time of apartheid.  She explained that under apartheid many white people were also victims.  At age 18, all white South African men were required to join the army and fight against non-whites, regardless of their personal beliefs.  Many of these boys injured or killed innocent people and are still suffering with the traumatic consequences of their actions.  The last generation of these men are now my age – in their forties and damaged for life.

Leaving the mosque we continued on walking past the colorful houses that Bo-Kaap is famous for.  Under apartheid, housing colors were restricted.  Shereen said that when the new President Mandela visited in 1994, the people asked if they could paint their houses.  Mandela replied “Paint as you wish!  This is the new South Africa!”  And paint they did.  Neighbors color-coordinate in order to make the whole block appealing.

We were lucky to get an earful of the Cape Minstrels, a marching band, playing in a yard.  There are many such musical groups which play at the yearly Kaapse Klopse, a minstrel festival held on the 2nd of January.  This celebration is also called Tweede Nuwe Jaar, or second New Year.  In the past, slaves had to attend to their owners on New Year’s day and the 2nd of January was their designated day off.  This day continues to be a huge celebration.

We continued on to a Saturday Market where Muslim women sold various foods and handmade items while American jazz music played in the background.  Darren and I sampled curries and admired the handmade crafts.  All the local women were very welcoming and friendly.

We visited another mosque surrounded by the Tana Baru Burial Grounds where many of the early prominent Muslim leaders are buried.  The burial ground overlooks the business area of Cape Town.  Quite a contrast.

Finally, we arrived at Shereen’s house.  She welcomed us with an incredible and beautiful spread of traditional Malay foods: samosas, poppadum, chilli bites and koeksisters (a delicious sweet and chewy treat!)

Shereen was an incredible host.  Her stories are treasures.

Bo-kaap has a vibrancy that goes beyond the colored houses.  This tour was a highlight of my visit here in Cape Town and I highly recommend it.  Darren at DC Tours can arrange it.

Photos of Bo-Kaap, Cape Town:


  1. Incredible colors!! I bet it was even more beautiful in person.

    • It was so cheerful. One wonders why people everywhere don’t opt for these happy colors.

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