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

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS -

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

an am­bas­sador’

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.


Anisah Abra­hams

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