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Rabbi Sizomu Votes For Himself

A dispatch from Uganda

Matthew Fishbane
February 18, 2011
The polling station in Namanyoni subdistrict.(All photos by the author)
The polling station in Namanyoni subdistrict.(All photos by the author)

NAMANYONI, UGANDA—Electoral Commission headquarters on the northern edge of Mbale town are bustling at 6 a.m., as officers dispatch the last of the black metal boxes that serve as balloting kits for today’s elections across Uganda. Up in Namanyoni subdistrict, campaign central for Rabbi Gershom Sizomu’s parliamentary run, the buzz is about some fighting that may or may not have happened last night between some of his supporters and some supporters of the ruling party candidate, MP Yahaya Gudoi Wojje.

Sizomu is receiving supplicants with all sorts of requests (as always), switching from one phone to another, and overseeing the installation of a polling station in the hillside behind the synagogue. The presiding officer there ceremoniously unpacks the kit, holding aloft each of the items for all official observers to see. Each of the eight candidates has sent an officially accredited agent to keep tabs on proceedings. Seven-hundred eighty-eight voters have been registered in the parish of Nabugoya. Sizomu steps to the front of the line and makes a statement: Who he will vote for president is a “secret in my heart,” he says, “but for MP it is Rabbi Gershom Sizomu!” The crowd of some 50 people waiting to vote raises a cheer. Then the registrar has trouble finding him on the list, because the central office listed his last name not as Sizomu but as “Rabbi.”

His wife, Tzipora, is next, and she makes her way around the three voting stations for presidential, MP, and local council, stopping to kiss her husband’s image on the ballot before dropping it into the appropriate slot. The hardware of democracy in Uganda could easily double as a homemaking bundle: For privacy booths, the Electoral Commission has sent small washing tubs and eight blue Bic pens. Gershom expects 100 percent of the votes here.

Rabbi Sizomu votes.

In Jewa subdistrict, some 10 km north of there, it’s incumbent Gudoi Yahaya Wojje who holds sway. His banner hangs over the entrance to the trading center that acts as a village, and his motto reads, “A man you can easily access and advise.” Wanare Mountain, a protrusion of volcanic rock, rises up behind the schoolyards cordoned off with white electoral tape. Here, Sizomu is polling only 10 percent, and the regional electoral supervisor is telling me that the town has been characterized by violence on past election days. “The place has been known for too much malpractice,” he says, and, on cue, in roll a pair of camouflage armored transports, stopping “for lunch,” the commander tells me, as his soldiers take idle positions on top of automatic turret-mounted weapons.

Then word trickles down that at the nearby polling station, some “chaos” has broken out: A scuffle between Sizomu supporters and people defending Wojje’s home turf. When I get there, a crowd has gathered around a central verbal argument, but my presence appears to break up the heat, and a pained electoral commission officer comes over to tell me he has tried to explain to the rural people “who have come from very far away” that this is not the way to solve problems. “I tell them to resolve it through the ballot box,” he says. The rumor is that Sizomu’s observation agent had been chased away from his spot next to the presiding officer, but when I ask, I find him there, making notes in a faded blue exam book.

A ballot.

Across the region, the day has taken the slow pace of Sunday, with lines of voters in the white-taped open areas dotting the landscape of plantain, cassava, and coffee beans. The Abayudayah expect to have representation in the national government for the first time, once the 60,000 ballots are counted this evening. In Chiruro, Bukonde, Bufumbo, and Namanyoni, they are making tick marks and thumbprints, deciding if the rabbi has what it takes to bring the riches of the capital to their dusty region.

Matthew Fishbane is Creative Director at Tablet magazine.