My Dad was a Geography teacher at Hottentots Holland High School in Somerset West for more than 30 years and he used to commute to school every day on his Vespa scooter These days Vespas have become the trademark of the Hipster crowd but back then it was simply an affordable way to get around for a teacher. The thing about those Vespa two stroke engines were that they did require a certain amount of love to keep going, just like us, I guess. Somerset West was still considered quite rural in those days and the only Vespa mechanic of repute was in Cape Town, around 50 km away.
So once a year my Dad loaded the Vespa and the family in the Green VW Kombi , my Mom fixed us a nice cooked chicken and potatoes ( we called it funeral chicken because that chicken was as white as the star of a funeral ) and made our way to Cape Town for the yearly Vespa scooter service.
First stop was The Golden Acre shopping Centre, and my goodness, a multi storied department store with escalators, to us coming from Somerset West it felt like being in spaceship. After a bit of window shopping, yes window shopping was a real thing back in the 80’s , we were off to the Bo-Kaap, to drop off the Vespa at a garage owned by two Italian brothers .The Italian gents always greeted my Dad with smiles on their faces and grease on their hands.
That was my first memories of the Bo-Kaap, a place filled with the smells of Cape Malay curry, the Cape Afrikaans dialect, seagulls overhead and steep cobblestone roads. These days, as a Cape Town tour guide , I am starting to discover and learn more and more about this culturally rich area. The colors of the Bo-Kaap lies not only in the multi-colored houses but also in the people, who contributed so much to the development of Cape Town and South Africa, the Cape Malays.
I recently learnt of a particularly influential gentleman, his name was Qadi Abdulsalam, affectionately known as Tuan Guru. He was a prince from Tidore in the Trinate islands and had ancestry connected to the Sultanate of Morocco. He was captured by the Dutch and brought to the Cape as a State Prisoner in 1780 and incarcerated on Robben Island. His crime is not clearly known, though it would appear he and others were involved in a conspiracy with the English against the Dutch.
While imprisoned on Robben Island, Tuan Guru wrote a book on Islamic Jurisprudence and several copies of the Holy Quran from memory. Yes, the Holy Quran from memory, it is told that in later years these copies of the Quran were deemed so accurate that they were used to check the accuracy of other imported copies of The Quran. On his release from Robben Island in 1792, after twelve years of imprisonment, Tuan Guru went to reside in Dorp Street, then the main residential area of the Muslims in Cape Town.
Here he married the free woman, Ka’ieja van de Kaap. It was while he was staying in Dorp Street that he saw the need for the establishment of a Muslim school or Madrasah. Thus in 1793, the Dorp Street Madrasah was established. Tuan Guru’s first concern was to teach his students, mainly Free Blacks and Eastern slave children, to read and write Arabic. Hence, he was nicknamed ‘Tuan Guru’ meaning ‘Mister Teacher!’. The establishment of the Dorp Street Madrasah had a tremendous impact on the Cape Muslims. It very soon encouraged the replication of similar educational institutions by other Imams. By 1832, no less than 12 Madaris operated in the Cape. Unbelievable to think of the determination and self-belief this gentleman possessed, to be removed from his homeland, imprisoned in a foreign country and to still create such a culture of learning and knowledge , we could almost say the name ‘ Tuan Guru’ in the same breath as our great Nelson Mandela.
As a Native Afrikaans speaker, I also find the influence that the Imams of the Bo-Kaap had on the development of the Afrikaans language very interesting. It was around 1820 that the Ottoman, Sultan Abdülaziz, decided to send over to Cape Town from Istanbul, a judge and scholar named Abu Bakr Effendi. His role was to act as a teacher and Imam for the Muslims.
Shaykh Abu Bakr wrote a book called Uiteensetting van die Godsdiens, which translates as ‘Exposition of the Religion’ This work was written in the language being spoken by the Cape Malays in their everyday lives. In the time in which it was written, the language we know of as ‘Afrikaans’ was still not known. The language was still seen as a lowly variant of the official Dutch language. As such, the first book to be written in the Afrikaans language was written not only by a Muslim, but also in the Arabic script.
And so, the stories continue in the Bo-Kaap, some in Afrikaans, some in English, others in Arabic but what it does teach us is that we are all contributors to this country and this nation called South Africa. Whether we have been here for 5 years or whether our ancestors set foot in Africa 3000 years ago. Contribute, create, treasure, love and respect.
Join our Historic Cape Town walking tour and learn more about the Bo-Kaap and the history of the city of Cape Town.