Keeping ‘Melayu’ alive in the Bo-Kaap
Cape Malay traditions have been diluted over the years, but are now making a strong comeback, writes FATIMA SCHROEDER
ONE can almost see the pride radiate from his face as he speaks about his childhood and those unique moments that were not unusual in Cape Malay communities back then. The wrinkles on his face, particularly those around his eyes, deepen as he thinks back to the day his father yelled at him because the rock that usually held open the front door of their humble abode wasn’t where it was supposed to be.
At the time, Abdullah Waggie couldn’t understand why his father made such a fuss.
But today, having researched his Malay heritage, Waggie understands why something so insignificant to him was of such tremendous importance to his father.
The stone, he said, represented death and his Malay forefathers firmly believed “death is always at your doorstep”. People would conduct their lives differently if they were conscious of that fact, he said.
Waggie has many stories to tell and spoke in detail of the wisdom behind the traditions of the Cape Malay people.
For example, he said, people dress up babies and place them on a decorated tray for the baby-naming ceremony when they don’t realise the actual beauty of doing that was not in the decoration, but more in the fact it was meant to distract people from their jealousy over the child.
It was, therefore, aimed at protecting the child.
Waggie, Gielmie Hartley, Faghry Hassan and the co-ordinator of the project, Nadiema Omar, are spearheading an initiative to revive Malay culture in Cape Town using what has become known as the Face of Melayu. Melayu is Malaysian for “culture”. Omar remembered she and “Pak Hartley” met at a Freemarket in Constantia, which Waggie had arranged in 2013 to market her Malaysian cultural tours.
They began chatting and decided to take steps to revive the Cape Malay culture.
She calls him Pak, which means “uncle” in Malaysia, out of respect.
Omar had a passion for Malay culture because her grandfather came from Java, and many Bahasa words were used in her home.
She and Waggie felt traditions stemming from the Cape Malays’ ancestry, particularly those practised at weddings, baby name-giving ceremonies and funerals, were virtually non-existent.
If they were practised, the origins of the traditions were rarely understood.
Exhibitions, workshops and presentations where they displayed old photographs of Cape Malay traditions and artefacts passed down from one generation to the next, were arranged. They also printed a small dictionary of Cape Malay terms.
Omar began organising exhibitions, workshops and presentations on a monthly basis, inviting people from other cultures to join in. The annual Malay Heritage Day, organised by the founding members, takes place on Heritage Day every year.
Cape Malay food is sold, and a modelling show of traditional Indonesian attire is presented.
However, there was a need to do something bigger. After much planning, advertising and deliberation, Omar, Hartley and Waggie launched Face of Melayu, an annual contest between young Cape Malay women who vie for a chance to act as the Cape Malays’
‘We saw a lot of
young people interested in the Cape Malay culture and decided to choose
“We saw a lot of young people interested in the culture and decided to choose an ambassador,” Omar said.
She created application forms, set up questionnaires, established a panel of judges and arranged a formal selection process, similar to that of a beauty pageant.
The difference was the person they sought was someone who would learn about the culture through intensive workshops and heritage tours, and act as a spokeswoman for their project.
This was aimed not only at the Cape Malays, Omar points out, but also to educate others since South Africa is culturally diverse.
The Face of Melayu ambassador is chosen on Heritage Day.
Omar and Waggie discovered people who followed other cultures and found
their roots were Malaysian.
The four founders haven’t looked back and are preparing for their fourth Face of Melayu contest this year. So far there are five women competing for the 2017 spot.
Ambassadors automatically qualify to participate in the World Muslimah Jewels Awards, an exclusive event that has taken place in Indonesia for the past five to six years.
Who can become the Face of Melayu? Any woman over the age of 18 who has completed Grade 12.
She must have knowledge of Cape Malay history or be prepared to learn about the culture and has to have a chaperone (male relative) available to accompany her if she is invited to Malaysia or Indonesia. Contenders can be single or married.
Omar said annual heritage tours to Malaysia are also organised to educate people about the culture.
The tours go into the villages and farm areas in Malaysia, from where most of the Cape traditions originate.
This year a delegation from the Faculty of Sharing Local Knowledge at a university in Pennant, Malaysia, will bring a young Malaysian female to Cape Town to conduct research.
Omar, Waggie, Hartley and Hassan are registered members of this university.
Face of Melayu has appealed for people to provide them with artefacts or old photographs which they can display at exhibitions.
Anyone who wants to enter to become the Face of Melayu should call Omar on 082 576 0290.
The colourful houses and cobblestone roads are some of the most attractive and well-known features of the Malay Quarter in the Bo-Kaap.