Sibongile and the Murderous Rooster

Baba sat in silence, waiting for his courage, and feeling every one of his 62 years. It was hot, dry, and buzzing was all about him. He had had many days like this, before leading himself down the path laid out by the healer. He was not too concerned about Sibongile because she was just a girl but still, she had played with his four grandchildren in the sand. It was not like she was some stranger that he would never have to see again.

Baba was silhouetted in the doorway but Sibongile had no reason to suspect him. For all of her seven years, Baba had been a fixture in her neighborhood. He was a surrogate grandfather and she was just as likely to be eating at his house as she was at hers. The length of dirt that separated their houses was so short that Sibongile's mother often asked Baba to check in on the girl while she was out looking for work.

Baba looked down at Sibongile who was tracing dancing figures in the dust. After checking that she was alone today, Baba asked if she would like to see his toy. Because the whole house was one room with little furniture, it was only natural for Baba to settle on the small bed. He coaxed Sibongile over to see a surprising toy with the added promise of a story.

To keep Sibongile at ease, Baba spoke uninterruptedly, masking the events that were to transpire. "Do you know the story of Gumha and his Large Rooster?" asked Baba while smiling inwardly at his cleverness. Baba had his own large rooster. It had gotten him into his present condition and would protect him in the end, if the healer's advice was credible. Why was he reduced to this when he had only followed tradition in proving his great prowess?

Baba started, "Gumha was the leader of a group of dancers that used to compete with other troops living around the lake. He was much respected because it was thought that he was shielded by powerful magic, which he used to ensure success in dance competitions. Gumha was credited with much of the success that his group achieved and this made the losing dancers jealous. His competitors had only one recourse in order to win and that was to bewitch Gumha.

"Gumha's great magic rested in a large rooster that rose to the roof to announce the new day." At this Baba took Sibongile's hand and guided it to his toy, his rooster rising to the roof. "Competing dancers bribed witches to sneak up on Gumha but his rooster would see them approaching and call for the rising sun at any hour of the night. Invariably, the witches would take the crowing as indication of the coming sun and ask, 'What is this magic? The crowing announces the dawn. We must flee or the villagers will discover us and kill us.' On countless occasions, the witches bolted without completing the mission to damage Gumha. The followers of Gumha would say in a boastful way that Gumha has such powerful medicine that none could harm him, not even the witches." Sibongile, with the innocence of childhood, was swept into the story. The room was hot, she was being suffocated by a great weight, and she anchored herself to the story.

"Even Gumha's eventual death did not sway his dancers. 'Our master was never bewitched and God himself now protects Gumha.' The witches were not as powerful as God, who is the one who created the rooster and is the one who crows for Gumha now." Baba finished his story and his rooster finished his deed. Baba believed in the same God of the healer who advised him. This magic would work.

The newspapers would later simply report, "Before Sibongile could react, Gumha pulled down her panties and raped her. Then he placed his fingers across her lips and warned her not to tell anyone about their game." But before it became a media event, Sibongile's mother had to make the discovery, which came as her daughter began to complain of discomfort. This led to the unveiling of bruises whose source was obvious. At the doctor's office (not the healer's), Sibongile broke down and choked out the story that she had promised Baba to keep to herself.

Baba did not feel like crowing about this conquest and denied Sibongile's story as being just that, a story. As everyone knew, the girl was too partial to stories for her own good. The pressure from the neighbors began to work on Baba, who finally confessed to Sibongile's mother that he was HIV positive and was acting on the advice of the local healer to purify his blood through sex with a virgin. Even girls of 10 or 11 were often too experienced, so he had to cleanse himself with someone whom he knew to be pure.


In fifteenth century Europe, the level of literacy had been on the decline. Ars Moriendi were picture manuals for one's preparation to meet death. On one level they were intended to ease the transition and prepare one's family for the coming loss. On another level, these manuals were a form of propaganda, advising the soon-to-be-departed to give heavily to the Church to guarantee a better place in Heaven or at least a seat further from the flames of Hell.

This book is one of three that deal with modern forms of death that visit a population. In this case it is the presence of AIDS in Africa and how a culture responds to and interprets the mortal threat. Sibongile's story comes from "Child rape: A taboo within the AIDS taboo; More and more girls are being raped by men who believe this will 'cleanse' them of the disease, but people don't want to confront the issue", Sunday Times, South Africa, April 4, 1999 by Prega Govender. It is combined with the story of Gumha and the Large Rooster as told by the Sukuma Research Committee. The two unrelated stories have been blended together to create a modern narrative that sets the stage for confronting death.

A typeface used throughout this three-volume collaboration is 14-point Cochin Light. Though rather old fashioned in appearance, Cochin is a creation of the early 20th century. There are several early versions that are listed under the names: Sonderdruck, Gravure, and Moreau-le-Jeune. M & H Type of San Francisco casts our version of Cochin Light. This face is readable in the manner of all old style faces and becomes the disarming vehicle for telling stories of death in diverse and contemporary cultures.

You are reading one in an edition of 50.

Jeffrey Morin