BOOK EXTRACT | 'Why is there a 6kg black rooster on my head?'

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In her new memoir, Sarah Bullen reveals how she and her husband participated in a weird ritual involving a rooster. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)
In her new memoir, Sarah Bullen reveals how she and her husband participated in a weird ritual involving a rooster. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

When her husband was diagnosed with brain cancer, Sarah Bullen was willing to do whatever it took to support him – even taking part in a ceremony where she had to sit with a huge black rooster on her head.

In this extract from her new memoir, Love and Above, she reveals the strange details.

The madness begins 

What am I doing here? It’s an easy Sunday morning and I am sitting on a cold concrete floor with my legs stretched out in front of me and a six-kilogram black rooster on the top my head.

I really should not be here.

I am a frazzled, but reasonably mature, hip and working mother of two small kids at age 34. And Sundays are rest and wine days. I should be at my parents’ house by the beach in Simonstown looking out over the yachts sailing. Soon I should be sitting down for a Sunday roast with a chilled glass of white wine. Or shouting as I chase my kids across the beach.

This cold hard floor is not the right place for me.

And yet here I am. Sitting quiet and meek with my head bowed and a cloth over my shoulders. I want to shift and move, but I don’t dare.

Behind me a chant rises and the air begins to swirl. The weight of the bird is immense. It’s resting on my head and getting heavier with every breath.

The rooster’s claws are gripping my skull like a fork. I feel as if I cannot bear it one more second. Not just the chicken and its groping feet, but this entire “ceremony”.

Then the chicken is lifted off and I could almost float with lightness and relief. I can’t see what is happening behind me but I can hear the frenzied clucking and feel the sweep of the feathers against my back. The wings drum against my head as it struggles to right itself.

I move to stand up.

“Right, I think I am done,” I gasp.

“Don’t move.”

I feel that chicken being swung around and around my head in circles as the sangoma standing behind me starts to chant and call.

He is calling to the ancestors, talking to them in a tongue I both know and don’t know.

The fresh croissant I scoffed from the buzzing bakery down the road an hour earlier is threatening to come back up and out.

Around and around me the chicken goes.

I am feeling dizzy now, and disorientated.

Now two roosters are circling me. Oh hell, he has one in each hand – held by their feet – and they are being swung around and around my head in faster and faster circles. Their flapping, frantic wings are scraping my face, tiny pieces of down and dust are coating the air. I do not move.

I try not to breathe.

I think I am allergic to feathers. Certainly dust, as a sneeze looms.

I sit frozen, not daring to sneeze, alone in the centre of this wild display.

But I am not alone. Next to me sits my husband, his legs outstretched.

It’s my Llewelyn. Father of our two small children. The man I met at a party with the blondest of hair and the loudest of laughs. The crazy filmmaker who was the sexiest man in any room.

My heart beat faster the moment he walked up to me that very first night we met, almost a decade before, with a cocky smile and a cowboy hat. I am still not sure if it’s ever beaten the same since.

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It sure is beating fast now as we sit together on the cold floor with those massive birds swinging around our heads.

We are side by side, but worlds apart.

He is in rapture. I am terrified.

I don’t dare look at him. I can only see him in my peripheral vision, but I don’t need to see him to know what he is thinking. I don’t want to look at him.

I know things about him just through tiny movements I can pick up. I know that his legs are shaking. Not because he is scared but because they have been stretched out straight for so long. He battles to sit for long. His muscles and joints have been weakened by three years of chemotherapy, so this position is a huge physical effort for him.

I know that he is focused and clear. He would never ask for it to end, or to take a break from the endless sitting.

This is a ritual and we must obey.

I know that he wants this ceremony; it is a ritual wash to bring us closer as a couple.

His eyes are closed and his lips move in the chant.

I make sure to keep mine open. Defiant and angry.

I know if I close them my already-thin grip on reality may be lost. I tried that earlier during a chant, I closed my eyes because it just felt right.

And then I wasn’t sure of anything.

Both chickens will be ritually killed out in the backyard. I will have to bathe in the blood later

Not of who I was. Or where I was sitting. I felt suspended in air – a soul without ground to call home. And then it was so very hard to get them back open and find my way back into that room on that Sunday morning. I wasn’t going to do it again.

“I think I want to go home.”

That is the only sentence in my mind right now. It stretches out before me like a neon sign over an exit in a dark, seedy street.

“I want to go home.”

I whisper it now.

Anything to escape the intensity of the moment.

Anything to escape the intensity of my life right now.

Anything to make sure the tumour in my husband’s head does not grow back. Again.

Anything that can make sense of the raw ache of grief I have pushed far away just so life can go on.

Anything to break out of this numbness of distance.

Anything to make sure he lives. Or that he dies and finally ends this long, strangling, crushing hold before it takes me down too.

Anything it takes.

“I want to go home.”

I speak louder now, but the noises surround me, and my voice is lost in the singing and chanting and those claws and wings.

The chickens are swirling faster now, creating a vacuum that sucks out the air in the room around me. I am locked in the sheer physicality of the experience. My sides are being battered by the huge wings as they swing around and around me. My already crazy curly blonde hair has escaped its tie and is standing up with what must look like static electricity.

We are here to do a ritual and a ceremony to thank our ancestors ahead of his next brain scan. Although the scans have happened with solid and unavoidable regularity, this next scan is something special.

After three years clear, an MRI has showed a rapid regrowth of his brain tumour.

So here we both sit.

In her book Sarah recounts how after her husband's
In her book Sarah recounts how after her husband's traumatic death she went on a spiritual journey to learn to live joyfully again. (PHOTO: Alix Rose)

I know what is going to come next – both chickens will be ritually killed out in the backyard. I will have to bathe in the blood later. I was told this ahead of time.

I grew up on a smallholding with many animals, so killing chickens is not a big deal for me. Bathing in the blood, however, feels a step further.

I know that this ritual will end soon. We are in the final stages of a series of medicine baths and washes that we have been doing since early in the morning.

This last one is to call in beauty and joy.

This is nothing new to me. My husband has been studying with a sangoma for three years now and ritual and ceremony are very much part of our lives. He is studying to be a koma doctor – a doctor of rituals.

As much a part as the days spent in oncology wards and the interminable wait for the MRI results.

But this particular ritual is an unexpected crossroads for me. I want out. Out of this room, out of this life.

I know all the people in this room. All four of us. I know them all intimately.

My husband I have known for nine years, two children and three years of brain cancer. His sangoma baba (father) is a trusted teacher and a friend. The other sangoma assisting in this ritual is a woman, healer and ritual specialist.

As the air moves faster and the chants get louder, the absurd thought crosses my mind that I am going to just get up and run. Not right now, that would be too obvious. But as soon as I get a gap and everybody is otherwise occupied, I am going to grab my clothes and bag and slip out the front door, walk to the main road just below the house, get into a taxi and drive away. From everything.

I will need to grab my clothes as I am currently naked and covered only with a hiya – a type of cotton sarong used for ritual. It is about to get covered with chicken blood.

But there is no running.

Not from this room.

Not from my marriage.

Not from the brain tumour that is back.

Nor from the costs that are piling up.

Not from my two children who need me.

Not from the death that is coming.

Running is for pussies who can’t take the heat and I am not a pussy. So, I will stand in the fire with him.

I also know I am not going to run because the metal gate at the front door is double-locked. I checked it earlier when I tried to slip out.

I can’t get out. I am literally locked in.

This is an extract from Love and Above by Sarah Bullen, published by Tafelberg, R249 from




By Sarah Bullen


What would you do if you discovered you had stage-four brain cancer and that in all likelihood you probably had just a few years left to live? Cape Town film director Llewelyn Roderick decides to follow a shamanic path, throwing his heart and soul into training with a sangoma to become a koma doctor of rituals while also undergoing traditional treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy.

For his writer wife, Sarah Bullen, it’s heartbreaking to watch and she sometimes has to dig really deep to support him as he vanishes for months on end to do his sangoma training, leaving her and their two young kids – and in the process transforming into someone she hardly recognises.

Then a few years after his initial diagnosis the cancer returns and she has to witness his steady decline. But as Llewelyn enters his final few weeks, Sarah is also fighting for her life after landing up in a coma.

She pulls through after a month on life support and then what she’s been dreading happens: her beloved husband dies.

And that’s where Sarah’s memoir might have ended if she’d been willing to choose the safe path and cling to her familiar life in Cape Town. But in the months following Llewelyn’s death, she makes a brave decision: she resolves that after years of living in the shadow of death and supporting her husband it’s time to go on her own spiritual journey.

Tired of being fearful and sad, she promises to do everything in her power to live boldly and joyfully – it’s a quest that will see her uprooting herself and her kids and moving to a Greek island.

This is an extraordinary, inspirational and unforgettable account of a woman who refuses to be defined by tragedy and chooses love over fear. Sarah is a superb storyteller – I couldn’t put her book down. Highly recommended. – JANE VORSTER

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