The Keeper of Fishermen Tales - Destiny Connect
ConversationWorld Wide Women

The Keeper of Fishermen Tales

Traci Kwaai. Photo: Lauren Manuel
Traci Kwaai. Photo: Lauren Manuel

When it comes to collecting the stories and rich history of Kalk Bay and its fisherpeople, Traci Kwaai aims to tell the real story of this seaside town and ensure their children become custodians of the ocean. 

By: Lauren Manuel

“I’d like to tell the story of the fisher child. We’re all the children of fishermen here. It’s why Kalk Bay exists. There’s only a harbour because there’s a fishing community who have called this place home for over 200 years. And people don’t know about that because they come here for romantic walks, to eat mussels and fish at the restaurants, buy surfboards, and eat ice-cream in the park,” says Traci Kwaai, artist, teacher and sixth-generation fisher child. 

“Once the railway arrived, more people started moving in and the more they wanted to turn this place into a tourist destination because it’s perfect for that. But there isn’t a single shop selling affordable bread and milk anymore and you won’t find a single person from the original community enjoying a meal as nobody can afford it.”  

These are just a few of the personal stories Traci shares on her Walk of Remembrance tours through this seaside neighbourhood of Cape Town where she grew up and where countless fishing families have made their livelihood for generations. Kalk Bay is said to be rather unique as even though it was declared a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act in 1967, the only people of colour permitted to remain were the fishing community in their single-room, high-rise flats in the area of Die Land, because they had to stay close to their boats.  

Collecting Stories

An avid storyteller, Traci has made it part of her life’s work to collect the memories of the elders whose heritage stem from all parts of the globe. It’s about remembrance, the history of erasure in our country, and me going back to spaces of erasure to find out about my community and my family.” Inhabitants of Kalk Bay included the original San inhabitants, enslaved Muslims from Indonesia and Malaysia brought by the Dutch East India in the 17th century, and British settlers as well as Spanish ships bringing enslaved Filipinos in the 1850s who were skilled fishermen. Due to fresh water and an abundance of fish, the fisher population grew to include British, Danish, Filipino, French, Indonesian, Spanish and Portuguese.  

Prior to colonisation and the Slums and Group Areas Act of Apartheid, the fisher people had a place in the community. They had shops and businesses, their own livelihoods, and they grew their own vegetables. The continued buying and developing of property by outsiders has also ensured locals are continually displaced and according to Traci, there aren’t even 200 brown people who live in the area today. 

In addition to her tours, another way of sharing stories and earning an income is through her own apparel and accessories label, Aweh Kaapstad, which showcases quotes from members of the community such as the legendary late Kalk Bay fisherman Jacobus Alfred Poggenpoel: “The sea is in our blood”. 

When it comes to the legacy she would like to leave behind, Traci longs to make a documentary of the area and has also launched a snorkelling club to address the issue of access for Kalk Bay’s children. “I started the snorkelling club because of my passion for the ocean and for youth. Growing up in Kalk Bay, even though I lived across the road from the harbour (the only beach which people of colour in Cape Town had access to), I never experienced the ocean in a way which was healing. I only experienced that in my 40s. Which makes me happy and sad. While diving is free when you’re in the ocean, it’s also expensive due to the need for proper gear and wetsuits.” 

A hope for change

At Save our Seas Foundation visits with their school, Kalk Bay children learn about the ocean and visit whitewashed pools, but the immersion into the kelp through snorkelling and diving is foreign to them. “I’d like to show them the incredible creatures and encourage them to become custodians of the ocean from a young age. I’d also like to teach them about where they come from. It was such a gift for me to learn where my ancestors came from, so to share that knowledge with them is truly a gift. Hopefully they can take that, build something, and take over the walks of remembrance – learn to become mountain guides and share the healing properties of the plants as my great grandfather taught us, so they too can run foraging and snorkelling tours,” says Traci.  

But all Kalk Bay residents still face challenges when it comes to the right of public access to the coastal amenities with historical value, such as the tidal pools beside the Brass Bell Restaurant. Together with community members and media, protests have been held to stop the Brass Bell owner against the continuation of encroaching into public spaces, as well as locking gates during peak season time to keep people out of the tidal pool, which happens to be a part of the restaurant. “He is still denying access, not just to people of colour but people from the community,” explains Traci. “And I think it’s quite interesting actually because white people who live in the community are only now feeling that lack of access that we’ve been feeling our entire lives.” 

When it comes to Tracy’s hope for change among Kalk Bay’s fisher people, she comments: “I feel like the situation got worse as the years progressed. There’s no fish in the sea, quotas have been taken away from fishers, only rich governments get all the money, fishermen are leaving their work and their jobs, they don’t want to be fishermen anymore, and young people are not looking to fish or making a living through fishing. I don’t know how change is going to come for them, but I see hope for the community through the children. I think that through developing a love for the sea, change will happen with them.”  

To join one of Traci’s Walk of Remembrance and/or to support the snorkelling club or Kalk Bay documentary, connect with her on Instagram @thefisherchild