Ramadan at the South African Cape (part 3)

Boeka (iftar) table in Cape Town © Armien Cassiem

Boeka (iftar) table in Cape Town © Armien Cassiem

Close to boeka (iftar) time Muslim children wearing scarfs and koefiyyahs (Muslim headdress for males) and dressed in thoabs (long garments) are often seen delivering cakies to their Muslim neighbours in Cape Town. Ramadan is a time to empathise and show generosity towards people. Believers are promised a great reward if they share with their fellow believers what they have to break their fast with.

However, it would be misleading to cite this virtuous Islamic teaching as underlying the motives for Muslims in Cape Town to share boeka treats with one another, as this custom could date back to the time when Muslims first arrived at the Cape. I would argue this is simply a reflection of communal generosity and neighbourliness in Cape Town that developed from a time when Muslims were at the receiving end of hostility during the formative years of Islam at the Cape.

As a kid, taking away cakies is simply your designated task an hour or so before boeka time. The rewards are numerous. Taking away cakies teaches a child responsibility and allows you to show obedience towards your parents. It also makes you feel actively involved in the spirit of sharing in the month of Ramadan. Secondly, it allows for variety at the boeka table. If one’s mother is good at making pancakes, the auntie across the road might be good at baking pies and spring rolls or samosas (triangular-shaped pastry with a savoury filling, usually fried in hot oil); the auntie further away might be good at making tarts, dalchies (pea-flour balls with spinach and spices, fried in hot oil), koeksisters (syrup coated doughnuts covered by grated coconut) or puddings, and so on. The legacy of the colonial era can thus also be seen in food traditions among Muslims in South Africa, which show up African, Asian and European influences. Hence, if your family shares what they have prepared for boeka with all of the neighbours in your immediate vicinity and  the neighbours share theirs with you, this results in quite a table filled with treats to look forward to when the bilal bang (adhaan, the call to prayer) announces that one’s fast may be broken.

Another boeka (iftar) table in Cape Town, featuring amongst others samosas, pastries, koek sisters and spring rolls © Armien Cassiem

Another boeka (iftar) table in Cape Town, featuring amongst others samosas, pastries, koeksisters and spring rolls © Armien Cassiem

The other, more significant reward to look forward to as a kid delivering cakies to the neighbours occurs on Labarang (meaning Eid al-fitr aka Eid as-saghir). When you ‘give’ slamat (paying respect by wishing Eid mubarak) to the neighbours on Labarang you receive a generous slaavat in return: a monetary compensation for always bringing them cakies and for being an obedient kid that fasted during the Ramadan. I remember I used to especially capitalise on this, when the pwaasa (fasting) was in the winter season; then I would deliver cakies in the wind and pouring rain, wearing my coat and Wellingtons (rubber boots). The image of a kid drenched to the skin, delivering cakies and wishing the neighbours “slamat vir die pwaasa” would often result in a generous slaavat on Labarang. My mother would see this as both an act of obedience and my willingness to help her.

Those years, my friends and I did not collect nearly as much as kids do these days on Labarang. Yet, we covered the whole neighbourhood and said slamat at more neighbours’ homes than kids do these days. We used to be picky at where we would start our rounds to say slamat. A list would usually be drawn up, with at the top of the list the names of neighbours who proved to give the biggest slaavats on Labarang over the years. The most generous neighbours would be visited first, sometimes immediately after Eid salah (the first prayer on the day of Eid). The neighbourhood would be well served; hardly any Muslim family would be skipped in our collection drive. After all, Labarang comes around but twice a year: Labarang Ramadan and Labarang Hajji (the above-mentioned Eid al-fitr and Eid al-adha aka Eid al-kabir respectively). Stickers displaying the Islamic crescent and star, usually on a front window of a home would help us to identify Muslim homes in parts of our neighbourhood we were unfamiliar with.

At times, we did not even know the occupants of these homes. They did not have kids our age that we played with, so obviously we would only visit these homes on Labarang. We would tend to avoid the neighbours that gave bronze coins, opting to first visit the ones that handed out silver slaavats before they would run out. The amount of slaavat you would receive depended on how you would answer the question whether you fasted the whole month. Needless to say, you would usually answer in the affirmative, saying that you attended the taraweeh prayers (supererogatory prayers performed at night during Ramadan, immediately after the late night prayer) every night in the mosque. As long as you wore a koefiyyah on your head, you could pass as a Muslim; so too, non-Muslim kids posing as Muslims were equally rewarded, but of course their trickery was limited to Muslims who did not know them.

The day after Labarang, we would compare our ‘takings’. “Hoeveel het jy gemaak?” (How much did you collect?), would usually be the opening line to the conversation, after all the silver ‘takings’ were counted, which seldom differed between friends since the same neighbourhood was covered. These days, kids have lost that drive to say slamat. Parents nowadays usually reward children with one big slaavat for fasting the whole month. This makes it unnecessary to collect additional slaavats from the neighbours. Ya Allah.. Times change.

Eid mubarak!

During this Ramadan a few people blogged about how they experience this holy month. You can find the other texts here.