The birds sang their morning song as I began to wake. I blinked my eyes continuously and rubbed last night’s sleep from their lids. I slipped on long pants, a cozy sweatshirt, and some warm socks. I tiptoed out of the room and headed up the stairs. I crossed the lawn to the metal staircase, twirling and winding up the side of the building. Quickly, I ascended the stairs and struggled to catch my breath at the top. The hostel roof, unmistakably, offers its best views before 6:30am. I sat close to the edge so as to not miss a single wave produced by the vast blue ocean. My cheeks burned as the salty ocean breeze brushed them red. The morning mist dotted my hair in a layer of damp cold. The weather invited families of clouds to scatter across the sky. But the waking sun was not to be silenced. Finding the only break in the clouds, the sun peaked its way into existence. Sun beams slowly reached their arms out of the dark clouds and spread across the sea. I smiled and turned my head to what I once ignored. To my surprise, the green luscious mountain, standing close behind, applauded the performance. I closed my eyes tightly to fathom this moment, this experience, this life.
Muizenberg, Cape Town sunrises became my first friend on the continent of Africa. After the third day at the beautiful ocean town, I reluctantly waved goodbye to the hostel and said hello to a new homestay, in a new country, in a new continent.
Here I am, in South Africa.
My homestay in Cape Town is in the historic neighborhood of Bo Kaap. Houses stand side by side in organized, bright, colorful rows. People are neighbors streets away. Neighbors are friends and friends are family. The Bo Kaap is the epitome of a community that cares for one another.
We had just arrived to the Bo Kaap, when we starting following the lead of my homestay mother, Omi Mia. She led us through the streets, pointing out houses and pairing them with her many friends’ names. All conversation in that moment was ignored as my brain concentrated on what the eyes were sensing — beautiful, bright rainbow houses. All connected. All so inviting and radiating. My daydream was abruptly ended when Omi stopped us in front of a bright yellow home. We emerged into a quaint and cozy living room filled with family photos and memorabilia.
Dinner after dinner, I excitedly sat at the table and listened as Omi shared her life story with us. Omi is an intelligent, witty, and incredibly caring woman. She is the oldest of four children. At 72 years old, she is the hub of social gatherings among her family and friends. On the night of our arrival, the table was set for seven. She apologized for the small gathering that night, and I chuckled thinking back to normal family dinners with just my mom and me.
The Omi Mia household is one of 24 other households in the Bo Kaap housing IHP students. The families hosting us students all know one another. They adventure together. They vacation together. They eat together. This is a community. This is a neighborhood that cares for one another.
From 1948 to 1991, the Apartheid government attempted to make the city of Cape Town a whites only city. This resulted in the Group Areas Act of 1950 forcing the segregation of different ethnic and racial groups. Families were forced from their homes, told they only had minutes to put their belongings in a truck that would drive them to their new government issued house. During this era of segregation, the Bo Kaap was, by law, deemed a Muslim only area. The neighborhood’s history shapes its present. Today, the Bo Kaap is a community of mostly Muslim families.
Unfortunately, gentrification and greedy politics are forcing families out of their Bo Kaap homes — homes that have been in their families for generations. With the growing popularity of South African property, the Bo Kaap has become a hotspot for development. It is in the central part of the city. The waterfront harbor, museums, and countless amenities are all within a short distance’s walk. As a result of this perfect storm, the demand for Bo Kaap property has exponentially grown. This increase in property value causes taxes to soar. New city regulations require monthly fees never charged to families before but are now deemed required and necessary. Older generations pass and their children are unable to afford the adjusted finances of the now million dollar homes. In turn, families who’ve grown up in the area are priced out of the Bo Kaap.
Gentrification is pushing history out of the neighborhood. People move in for the convenient location while ignoring the community’s culture and individuality. South Africa’s oldest mosque, over 200 years old, is located on the streets of Bo Kaap. In practice with the Islam religion, the mosque plays a call to prayer at certain times of the day. Within the past few years, an individual from Europe bought a house in the Bo Kaap. Annoyed by the daily 5am wakeup from the call to prayer, he complained at a community meeting. He demanded for the call to prayer to be stopped. He believed as a foreigner, an outsider, and a non-Muslim that his needs should come before everyone else’s. He willingly bought the house in the Bo Kaap. He willingly moved in to this historically Muslim neighborhood. But now, he is unwilling to accept the community he moved himself into. Thankfully, his request was denied. And at 5am, I happily lay in my bed listening to South Africa’s oldest mosque’s call to prayer.
Another problem within the Bo Kaap is the consequences of tourism. The Bo Kaap is deemed a must-see destination for South African vacations. Tour buses park at the entrance of the neighborhood so their customers can get out and take photos. Tourists ignore the privacy and property of the street’s natives and climb on their porches to snap the perfect photo. Tour guides lead groups through the community’s sidewalks, spewing ignorant and downright wrong information about the neighborhood. Omi has overheard tour guides tell groups the houses were painted different colors as a solution to them not being able to identify their own home when they come home drunk. Yet, as a predominately Muslim neighborhood, most individuals do not drink in their town. Tour guides still continue to share inaccurate and disrespectful rumors about real people, living in this very real place. Tours of the Bo Kaap are advancing tourist companies, the city, and the outsiders. Those living in the Bo Kaap are not reaping any benefits from tourism. Instead their reputation is tarnished and their property is trespassed.
Nonetheless, I am thankful to say I am part of the SIT/IHP abroad program. As a student of IHP, I am contributing to the preservation of the Bo Kaap and its stories. Our homestays are compensated for housing students. These working class families are paid generously by our program for kindly inviting strangers into their house. Students learn from the families. They learn the truth, the facts, the reality from citizens of the Bo Kaap. But also we share our experiences, lives, and stories with the families too. It is important to remember reciprocity when you’re abroad. As much as we take from a foreign country as American students, it is just as important to leave a compassionate legacy behind. I am honored to share the stories born and cultivated from Bo Kaap history. I do not take this task lightly. To have the opportunity to share someone else’s story, through my eyes, is truly a powerful adventure. I am grateful to have this platform as an occasion to share the stories of these beautiful people in Bo Kaap, Cape Town.