When I was growing up in Cape Town, Ramadan was a time of aromas in the neighbourhood as boeka, or breaking of the fast (iftar in Arabic), approached. It was the duty of young children to take plates of cookies and daltjies (pea-flour balls with spinach and spices) to the neighbours. My formative experiences are the patterns of family and community traditions during Ramadan in Cape Town.
Islam has a long and fascinating history in Cape Town. Muslims first arrived more than 300 years ago, and though most were slaves who were brought by the Dutch from India, South East Asia and other parts of Africa, Islam flourished in the Cape. In addition to the slaves and political exiles, Islam also grew rapidly through conversion, both among indigenous people and non-Muslim slaves. At one point during the colonial era, slaves formed the majority of the population in Cape Town.
Many contemporary practices in the Muslim community date from colonial and slave eras. A significant legacy of communal activities and neighbourliness developed in an era that was often hostile to Islam. This translated into practices such as the communal gathering every year to sight the moon with the naked eye and announce the start of the fast the next day. At times during the colonial era when there were disputes and divisions in the community, local leaders would sometimes appeal to Islamic authorities in Turkey, India or Egypt to render a judgement.
Ramadan is known in Cape Town as the Pwasa or the Fast, and `Eid (Arabic for an Islamic public celebration) is called Labarang. The morning meal before soeboeg (dawn), which is called sahur in Arabic, is known as sower, and the Arabic iftar–the breaking of the fast–is known as boeka. The use of these terms shows traces of the Behasa Melayu language in South Africa, as it was the lingua franca for people from the Indian Ocean region where most slaves originated. The legacy of the colonial era can also be seen in food traditions among Muslims in South Africa, which shows African, Asian and European influences; a legacy which is also seen in the Afrikaans language. Developed initially as a slave Creole language, Afrikaans includes elements of indigenous Khoisan languages, Dutch, Arabic, Portuguese and Behasa Melayu.
Today the Muslim community in South Africa, while still a minority, is well established and integrated into the wider population. The largest percentage of Muslims in South Africa is to be found in the Western Cape. Cape Town, with its many different religions, has numerous mosques and Muslim educational institutions. Halal food (permitted by Allah) is widely available in the supermarkets. From my mother’s house, we could hear the Adhan (call to Prayer) from three neighbourhood mosques. Since 1996, there have also been two Muslim community radio stations in Cape Town, giving Muslims a new form of contact with one another, and also a media forum with which to communicate with the wider Western Cape community.
For me, the Fast is both a time to abstain from certain aspects of life and, on the other hand, to increase awareness of, and even celebrate other aspects. Of course, the dominant element of Ramadan is to abstain from food and drink after Soeboeg and until sunset. As I was growing up, my parents and madrassa (Islamic educational institute) teachers explained the Pwasa to me as a time to focus on the spirit. To heighten this aspect, people undertake a khatam, or complete reading of the Qur’an.
The Fast is also a time to empathize with those who have little food–charity and generosity being a central part of behaviour during the Fast. On the `Eid, food is cooked in huge pots and thousands of meals distributed to those less privileged. My mother being a doctor regards the Fast as an ideal time to advise her patients that bad habits such as smoking can be given up completely, rather than just during the day.
Growing up, the aspects of life that enjoyed great attention were neighbourliness and family. Cooking and baking played a special role in this. The whole of the Pwasa was marked by special foods. Every night, as the breaking of the fast, or boeka time, approached, Muslim households in our neighbourhood would send little plates of whatever they would be eating that night–usually samosas, mince pies, daltjies, or biscuits– to the neighbours. It was the role of the children of the house to take these plates around. As we went on our rounds, my sisters and I would see other children in their scarves, walking down the street carrying plates of boeka treats. I remember for a long period during my childhood, the Fast took place during winter, so in my memory, dates, soup, daltjies and samosas are strongly associated with Ramadan.
There have been many changes over the years in Cape Town. With shifts in family patterns as more people work outside the home and with the increasing availability of halal food for sale, progressively more people are buying ready made biscuits, pies and special foods that characterize the evening meal, rather than baking at home. This is good because it provides a source of income, especially for Muslim women who have established cottage industries as cooks and caterers. On the other hand, as fewer people learn to cook or bake, knowledge about these special foods is no longer passed along within families as before, and people rely these days on recipe books rather than knowledge inherited across generations.
Generally, women are responsible for most of the cooking during the Pwasa. However, the special briyanis and curries at Labarang would often be made by men, who tended to cook for large numbers of people-500, 1000 or even more. On Labarang day people visit family and friends, and to welcome them the tables are laid with a festive abundance of cakes. The inventive and delicious biscuits of Cape Town are famous throughout the country. Flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and nutmeg, with names like saboeratjies, karamonk scraps and hertzoggies, each biscuit has a story attached to it, and makes a favourite gift for non-Muslim friends the day after `Eid. Often families bake for days in a row before the feast. Houses are thoroughly cleaned and new curtains or paint might be evident.
When I was young, local tailors and dressmakers would make our Labarang clothing. We would choose our own fabric and pattern, and there would be many fittings before the big day when a tailor-made dress or suit would be collected. Today, sadly, that tradition is passing, as people tend to buy their clothing at department stores.
On Labarang day, people go to the mosque for salah (ritual Prayer) in the morning, and, after Prayers, it is a tradition that they are served in the mosque with freshly baked bread. Once they return from the mosque, families go round to greet the neighbours and then go to visit family. Though this day is not an official public holiday, it is generally accepted that Muslims will take the day off work. As one drives to visit family in other neighbourhoods, one can recognize other Muslims by the fezzes and scarves. The day is characterized by great hospitality, and families gather for large shared meals with favourite dishes like crayfish curry, kabobs and oven frikkadel. The next day one usually takes Labarang treats to one’s colleagues.
Ramadan in the North
I grew up with a very communal understanding of Ramadan, so when I moved to the UK to study, and now in the US, I make certain that I am in regular contact with friends and family. Telephone calls, letters and the internet are very important ways to keep in touch. I find that especially as Ramadan approaches, I tend to cook the familiar ‘Ramadan foods’, and regularly exchange recipes and cookbooks with my mother and sisters.
The emphasis on neighbourliness and charity in the Fast, especially in the form of giving food, has always created a good point of connection with my neighbours in the UK and US, both Muslim and non-Muslim. We regularly exchange home-baked food and flowers during the year, and so it is easy to continue this at Ramadan. It helps that Americans are now much more aware of the Muslim festivals, an unexpected benefit of the extensive attention Islam enjoys in the media these days!
Since the Fast will occur during winter in the North, in some ways I will be recreating my childhood memories by making soup and daltjies to go with dates when we break our fast this year.
Gabeba Baderoon is a South African Journalist
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