Exploring Mother City stories

CARL COLLISON

Ushering me into her Bo-Kaap home, Shereen Habib chats to me as though we’ve known each other all our lives.

“Carl, are you sure you don’t want something to eat?” she insists, a post-shower towel still tied unselfconsciously around her head.

It is this sense of gasvryheid that has seen Ms Habib being approached by the founders of VoiceMap South Africa to be the voice of an audio tour of the area.

Added, Ms Habib is, as she proudly points out, “the first Bo-Kaap tour guide from the area”.

Despite only having launched towards the end of 2014, Cape Town-based VoiceMap users already have a myriad choices at their disposal.

Iain Manley, CEO and co-founder , says: “We have 34 audio tours in Cape Town, one tour in Hermanus and one that guides you around Cape Agulhas. Spier Wine Farm also created two audio tours.”

But what exactly is VoiceMap?

The Woodstock-based company was started by two South Africans, Mr Manley and Lauren Edwards, nearly two years ago. Since then it has released almost 150 tours in 48 cities around the world.

Commentary ranges from local perspectives to voice-guided tours through London’s West End by international personalities like Ian McKellen.

Says Mr Manley: “There are two sides to VoiceMap. The first is our audio tour apps for iPhone and Android devices, which play local stories and commentary through your smartphone at specific GPS locations while you walk.

“The second is our free storytelling platform, which allows anyone to create their own audio tour. VoiceMap contributors have the support of a team of editors and, after selecting a price tier for their tour, earn 50% of the proceeds from every download.”

Mr Manley adds: “We hold once-monthly events, during which members of VoiceMap’s community come together to explore a different neighbourhood through someone else’s eyes.

“The events also attract people who are curious to try the app out, but may prefer to do so with us around to provide technical support.”

Tours on offer cover areas from Mouille Point to Muizenberg, Kirstenbosch to Khayelitsha, and topics of interest from slavery in the Cape to cycling the seaboard; street art to the political struggle.

Says Ms Habib: “The VoiceMap people approached me looking for someone who lives in Bo-Kaap to do an audio tour of the area. I suppose they approached me because I had been doing tours here since 1979 – right through to the 1990s. When I started out, it was really short tours to customers at Biesmillah restaurant, which my parents owned.

“At that time, there were no brightly coloured houses here, so I had to divert my walks to the nicer parts,” she laughs.

Now arguably one of the city’s most beautiful and historic tourist attractions – and the need to “divert my walks to the nicer parts” a thing of the past – Ms Habib’s audio tours takes its users from the steps of the Bo-Kaap Museum to other significant places such as the Auwal Mosque and Tana Baru cemetery.

The website boasts Ms Habib’s tours offer “a deeply personal loop through the historical heart of this area”, adding: “Rather than painting a picture of cobblestones, carnivals and colourful houses, she’ll take you right into the very core of the place, and help you understand why this place is so close to the hearts of thousands of people across the world.”

This “helping you understand” is one of the main aims of another such walk: the Being a Woman in Cape Town tour. Spearheaded by the organisation WomanZone, the tour was initiated two years ago.

WomanZone’s Nancy Richards says: “We had already had our ‘women walk and talk’ route. So, when we heard about VoiceMap, we thought it was a brilliant idea and wanted to be a part of it.”

Ms Richards adds; “We had such fun writing, revising and recording the copy (together with Ms Edwards), adding in music and some poems by Antjie Krog and Malika Ndlovu. And the wonderful thing is that actually you can tweak and change if necessary… if things change – and” she laughs, “heaven knows they do here in Cape Town.”

When asked how many people had used the audio tour, Ms Richards says: “I can’t say exactly,” before adding with a laugh: “It’s not a million, that’s for sure.”

Ms Habib concedes that what she makes from the audio tours is “about a tenth of what I would get if I was conducting the tours in the flesh”.

For her, however, the benefits of the tour, on a socio-cultural level, outstrip any potential financial gain.

“What is really important about having the VoiceMap tour is that it, hopefully, benefits other tour guides who don’t know much about the area. With the audio tour, they can get first-hand knowledge of the area’s history,” she says, adding: “You would hear some tour guides saying things like the reason people painted their houses these bright colours was because they needed to be able to identify their homes when they’d come home drunk at night.

“They would actually say these things to their tour groups while standing outside people’s homes and people would, of course, take offence to that.

“So,” she laughs, “it’s an opportunity for those stupid people to learn more about the area and stop talking such rubbish to people and hopefully remind people that dignity prevails in every family here.”

Says Mr Manley: “VoiceMap connects stories to places. The power of our storytelling platform is, I believe, in asking people to tell you a story by letting them select a series of significant places first.”

Ms Richards adds: “We’re all up to our eyebrows with the big statues. History is happening all the time in front of us.

“Also, these tours are really a way to hear the back story. It’s about real people telling their stories, which allows us to see life – and these areas – through their eyes. These are our stories.”

* For more information on VoiceMap, visit http://voicemap.me