The Generosity of Strangers

There I was. Outside a Muslim shrine in Cape Town, South Africa. I had walked all the way uphill in the scorching heat. I was about to enter when I realised I had made a mistake. I had forgotten to bring something to cover up with, as required to get in.

Bo-Kaap is an area known for its brightly coloured homes and cobble-stoned streets. It’s like stepping into a postcard. I had been recommended a cobbler who could fix anything. I had been taught how to greet people in Bo-Kaap. And not least I had been told where to eat the best Cape Malay cuisine.

I stopped by the cobbler, I visited the Bo-Kaap Museum and then started exploring, following the instructions of Shereen Habib — whom I have never met. (Audio tours with local storytellers are ace.) Bo-Kaap was turning into much more than a postcard as I was learning about what could be found behind the colourful façades. I made it to the Tana Baru Cemetery when I realised I had nothing to cover up as instructed. I heard voices inside and wouldn’t risk offending anyone. I was about to turn around when I heard “Hello?”. I explained the situation, she went back in and came back with various pieces of clothing for me to borrow.

Inside, I met three women. They had taken the day off to visit the shrine. They explained that it was an opportunity to meditate and get away from the daily routine. “It’s also a break from the children” — one of them added with a wink. I don’t remember how long we ended up sitting there talking. I should have asked for their names. I should have taken a photo of them. Among the photos I took on that day, there is one I had forgotten about. Proust had his madeleine. I have this slightly odd photo of me, covered from head to toes. It takes me back to a shrine in South Africa and this lucky encounter.

As I walked down the street, I heard two honks behind me. Three women I had just met were waving and smiling from the windows of the taxi taking them back home. I smiled and waved. And kept smiling long after they were gone. Kindness is magic.

About Cape Malays:

The community’s earliest members were enslaved Javanese transported by the Dutch East India Company. They were followed by slaves from various other Southeast Asian regions, and political dissidents and Muslim religious leaders who opposed the Dutch presence in what is now Indonesia and were sent into exile. They were the group that first introduced Islam to South Africa.

Photo: Bo-Kaap, South Africa.
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