What living in Bo-kaap, South Africa taught me

Yawen Tsao ’19 | Contributing Writer

The Nurul Islam Mosque is a mosque that was founded in 1844 in Bo-Kaap, South Africa.

Last Monday, I went there for an Islamic class with my host mom, who has been an Islamic teacher for her whole life — 72 years. When I walked in, it was praying time. Five times a day. All believers knelt in an attitude of devotion. The women wore hijabs and robes, while the Muslim men were in casual clothing.

I was surprised that none of them tried to preach to me. I did not know any Arabic before I came to Bo-Kaap and had literally no prior knowledge of Islam, but I definitely heard things about this strict religion — good and bad. To be honest, I had an unknown fear of not being able to get along with my host mom.

After staying with my host mom, I realized that my fear was from the worry that my ignorance about her religion would offend her.  As we got to know each other better through talks and daily living, I realized that she was just like everyone else — a normal person. Practicing Islam is just a part of her life and herself. What I needed to do was to simply give her the respect that I give to everyone.

Through my stay in Bo-Kaap, the home of Muslim residents for decades, I learned that cultural differences can lead to misunderstanding. Yet, as soon as you realize that people do this without harmful intentions, the misunderstanding would soon go away and may even become an inside joke later.

My host mom in Bo-Kaap is the nicest person I have ever met. She treated me like her own child. Not only did she feed me with the best food, but she also taught me lessons through her actions. She cares about everyone: saving leftovers for homeless people every day, visiting neighbors who have cancers regularly and bringing them homemade cupcakes. When people like her get hurt, it makes me feel really bad.

She always made jokes about her religion: “I know you all have read [the] news. Now you are living with a terrorist, aren’t you?” I understand how people’s comments, misconceptions or even discriminations about Muslims hurt her. “My religion values peace more than anything.” Actually, she does not need to explain it to me because her daily kind actions say everything. She is like my grandmother. I could merely do my best to make her feel happy, and this left me feeling powerless. When I took her out for dinner, she wept and said that it was her first time going out for dinner with her host students in 12 years.

 I am so grateful that I had the chance to live in Bo-Kaap, especially with her. Never would I have had the chance to go into Muslim family life and get to know Muslims — even though religion is just one aspect of who they are. Life in Bo-Kaap was my happiest time in South Africa. I recognized that all those fears come from unfamiliarity. It is useless to be scared of it.

We all need to step out of our comfort zones and be nice to everyone. When you get closer to people you are not familiar with, you will find out that they are just normal people, and we should never carry preconceptions and stereotypes in relationships. That is the most valuable thing I learned from my time in Bo-Kaap.

Sophian Smith