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20 December 2006
Irishman pens book of Bo Kaap stories
by Nadine Christians

A trip to Zanzibar a few years ago planted the seed for Claremont resident Mike Hutchinson to pen the book Bo Kaap - Colourful Heart of Cape Town, about the Bo Kaap's history and present-day community.

Zanzibar, explained Mike, is the island of spices and the slave trade, and "a lot of people who ended up in the Bo Kaap could have come through Zanzibar". But, it was what he experienced in a slave chamber that first brought about the idea for the book.

"I went down to the chamber with the tour guide and had a real sense of the terrible hardship. The whole experience lasted about 10 minutes but seemed longer. I had a real sense that I needed to do something, right the wrongs."

Mike did not set out to write about the Bo Kaap, and only wanted to find the best way to honour the memories of those slaves who passed through Zanzibar.

The book comprises the early history of how slaves found their way to the Bo Kaap; how the area was formed; its development into the present-day community; religion; sports; and cuisine. It also includes all the contact details of the people featured in the book.

A lot has been written about the Bo Kaap, Mike said, but there weren't any books that chronicled the lives of the people, "and with Cape Town changing and gentrification, it was important to capture things as they are now'.

Mike worked with many 'incredible' people, including prolific songwriter and playwright Tailep Petersen, who was shot dead in his Athlone home on Sunday December 17.

"I worked with a number of knowledgeable people and I got stories from people who live in the area. I interviewed about 30 people, but haven't included all the interviews. For the historical part of the book, I worked with the Achmat Davids family," said Mike.

He is originally from Ireland, but fell in love with South Africa after his mother relocated to Cape Town in 1985. After travelling back and forth he moved here for good 11 years ago.

But how easy or difficult was it to convince a community to "open up" to an Irishman?

"As an outsider people think, 'how can you give a balanced view?' I didn't grow up in South Africa and I think I went into it with an open mind. I don't have the background of apartheid hanging over me.

"I came with an open mind and wasn't doing it with preconceived ideas. Maybe that was why people opened up," Mike said.

Asked how this book differs from others written about the area, Mike explained that while there are a lot of books about the community, the community itself hasn't written about themselves.

"There is a lot of oral history but not a lot of written history. Somebody needs to do this now before the history is lost. Already people are moving out of the community, and people are moving into the community, changing the shape of the area. It's important to capture what's there before it's gone."

Mike also believed that it was important for people to feel that they are home, and for that simple reason, the idea for the book was born.

"These people who came here have been displaced", he said.

"I understand that, coming from one community to another, it takes time to re-establish yourself. This book tells the story of how people that have been displaced have made the Bo Kaap their home," said Mike.

While compiling the book, Mike was humbled by the Bo Kaap community and their experiences.

"What most impacted me was the strong sense of love and caring. You go into people's homes and there [were always friends, family and neighbours coming in and out. Unfortunately many communities in South Africa have lost that sense of care.]

'There's a real community spirit there and I felt that people depended on each other. The community spirit and warmth of the people made the biggest impact on me," said Mike.

*Bo Kaap - Colourful Heart of Cape Town can be bought at all major bookstores