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The Rabbi Runs for Parliament

Dispatch from Uganda

Matthew Fishbane
February 17, 2011
Gershom Sizomu at a rally in Uganda.(All photos by the author)
Gershom Sizomu at a rally in Uganda.(All photos by the author)

NAMANYONI, UGANDA—Wednesday marked the closing of Uganda’s campaign season, ahead of February 18 elections for president and parliament. The president, Yoweri Museveni, has held power for 24 years, and claims that his police and military units were deployed to “ensure security” during polling and the lengthy hand-counting expected for Saturday. But the mood in and around Namanyoni is festive, all-hands-on-deck. Gershom Sizomu, likely the first and only native-born black African rabbi and the leader of the local Abayudayah community of Ugandan Jews, sees his prospects for a parliamentary seat as better than decent. The outgoing MP, Yahaya Wojje, a Muslim, has floundered in gambling debts in Kampala, the capital, and done nothing for the locals, while Sizomu, with the help of his international friends, has completed two health clinics, several schools, and a number of water towers and wells. He has been telling groups of voters gathered under mango trees or in schoolyards or village elders’ patios that as an MP he can do such things not only for the Jews, but for all the people of Bungokho North district. In return, they cry in support, “Gershom Jou!” which is Swahili for “Gershom Arise!” It sounds a lot like “Gershom Jew!” a rallying chant that wouldn’t be inappropriate, given that Sizomu stands smiling under a crocheted kippa.

In the flat wide expanse of a schoolyard in the valley, Sizomu’s crew erects a platform out of logs and planks, and calls in the services of the Sikimu Fire Sounds sound system, which consists of a generator and a number of gigantic speakers. The screensaver on the DJ’s old laptop shows Sizomu shaking hands with George W. Bush at the White House.

By Wednesday evening, the dusty ground has filled with hundreds of the local villagers, Jews, Muslims, Christians, eager to dance to soukous and cheer on their candidate. Sizomu’s brother J.J. straps on a beat-up red electric guitar, and shortly after, Sizomu grabs the blue one, and, with the backing band, they pluck out some high-pitched melodies, which come through the enormous speakers sounding like rattling aluminum foil. Women are brought on stage to shake their butts. The dust rises and reflects the few headlight beams that occasionally flash across the otherwise dark and moonlit stage. The campaign managers shout, One Uganda! The people call back, One People! And then, Gershom Jou! And the music continues, until someone trips over the power cord running from the generator to the stage, and all is silent in the valley.

Today, Thursday, Sizomu has dispatched his representatives to every corner of the district to knock on doors, distribute flyers of his image (in which he appears in his trademark head covering), and find out how people will be making it to the polls tomorrow. An army of election observers, trained in the last few days by Sizomu’s people, are gathering their lists from the downtown office and steeling themselves to “make noise” at the first sign of foul play. Sizomu’s solicitors number far more than he could possibly receive, so a large part of his day is spent shuttling from different impromptu headquarters, where he can make a kind of retreat to gather himself, take phone calls, and decide where to go next. “The things they ask me for now—water, health clinics, uniforms for school—they are only going to ask me for more in the future,” he observes, before hopping into the back seat of the Surf and heading off to another meeting in the shade of a mango tree.

Matthew Fishbane is Creative Director at Tablet magazine.