(All Photography by Scot Facer Proctor)
Yeah Samake, a BYU graduate and frontrunner for president of Mali, will be hosting a free “family night” this Monday, December 12, at 6:30 pm at the UCCU Center. Please come and meet someone we hope will be the next president of Mali. For more information go here.
Another Latter-day Saint is running for the president of a nation—only the country in question isn’t the United States. It’s Mali, and Yeah Samake, the charismatic frontrunner for an election that will take place this April, has not run up against criticism for his faith. As the only Latter-day Saint man in a country that is 90% Moslem, it hasn’t been an issue.
Instead, he is using his foundational values and leadership to confront issues which plague Mali—systemic poverty and corruption which keep people hungry and desperate. As mayor of Ouelessebougou and vice-president of the Mali League of Mayors, he has already become renowned for his policies which stamp out corruption.
Those who work in Africa attempting to change the conditions say it is not well-meaning handouts that fundamentally can change things, but bold leadership like Yeah offers that is not afraid to stand by principle.
It is remarkable that in land-locked Mali, the 24th largest country in the world, comparable in size to South Africa, a region plagued with drought and desertification as it extends north into the Sahara, that the man who steps forward to lead is the only Latter-day Saint in the nation. He and his family stand alone in faith in this nation of 14.5 million.
Those who grew up thinking that Timbuktu was the farthest reaches of the world should know that is a city in Mali.
The charismatic, multi-lingual and well-educated Yeah Samake was born into extreme poverty in the dusty town of Ouelessebougou. He grew up in a mud hut with a thatched roof, one of the 17 brothers and sisters of his father’s three wives. His father had been born into poverty and his father before him. It was not just the family legacy, but the legacy of a nation.
Yet Yeah’s father had something that set him apart. He was bound and determined that each of his children should be educated. Most children in Mali understand that they have to work to help sustain the family and so they are plucked from even the rudest education early on—but not Yeah’s family. Their neighbors said that the family would go hungry, but it was vital to his father that they overcome the darkness of illiteracy.
Food was scarce and most nights Yeah went to bed with an empty, gnawing stomach. His mother tied a handkerchief around his abdomen to press in against the emptiness so his stomach wouldn’t hurt so much. Somehow the dream was fulfilled, because his father’s insistence on education has resulted in brothers who are engineers, another who teaches physics at the university. Because of this insistence by a father with a dream, Yeah’s family became one of the most prominent in Mali.
“We did not know we were poor,” Yeah said, “because most everybody else was poor. My first realization that I lived in poverty was when I came to America when I was 30.” This opportunity came to him because he graduated from college with a degree in teaching English as a second language.
Upon graduation, however, there was no job for him because the government could not afford to hire teachers. Yeah returned to his village and provided his services for free for three years, because he said, “I didn’t want to waste my talents. The village was very appreciative. Nobody had served them like that before.”
He had a radio program and translated programs from the BBC and Voice of America into his native language so that everyone could at least understand what was going on in the world.
How did he survive offering all of these free services? Hhe said, “When you serve, even though you have needs, your needs are taken care of by a Higher Power than yourself.”
Among the service he gave was acting as a translator for people from the United States who came to Ouelessebougou. Among the people he met were the Winstons, a family from Colorado, who were impressed with him and wanted to further his education in America at BYU.
When he came to America, it was not easy. “It was a big change for me. I went from starvation to visiting Costco. You can imagine the shock. The intake of information was incredible. I went from having a stomachache to having a headache because I could not process all the information. “
Yeah had already been exposed to Latter-day Saints as he had translated for people who came over to work on the Ouelessebougou Alliance, but a defining moment was coming across a Book of Mormon in Mali that had been left by a Peace Corps volunteer, not a member, who had bequeathed him all of her books when she left.
“I read it,” he said, “and it impressed me in a way that I cannot explain. Then when I came to Utah, the Winstons’ son and all of his friends exposed me to missionaries. All these young men, eager to learn and go to church on Sunday, were something I had never seen before—nothing like it. It was my idea of heaven.
“I went to a football game, and they announced that someone was going to say the prayer. I had never heard anything like that. I was so touched that I could not stop crying. I just cried like a baby, the idea of people asking a benediction at a game.”
Yeah wanted to know about the gospel, so he received all the missionary discussions, and immediately he wanted to be baptized. He was impressed with the sense of family, the sense of dedication.
Yet, to his surprise, his request for baptism was rejected and he was not told why. Then he returned to Colorado, received six more discussions, and again the mission president said he couldn’t be baptized. Finally, he spent a week in New York before he left, staying with a bishop who had been in Mali, and received six more discussions. This time he received special permission to be baptized and left the next day for Africa.
Yeah learned that he had been rejected for baptism because of fear for his safety, since he was returning to an all Muslim country.
When Yeah returned to BYU, he was accepted in a masters of public policy program, went on to do an internship at the United Nations and became intrigued and inspired by development work. He also married his wife, Marrissa Coutinho, who is a convert from India.
For awhile he settled in Utah, but kept working for Mali. He formed the Mali Rising Foundation and began raising money to build schools. From the beginning it was designed to be a self-sustaining program with Malians paying 20% of the cost, the foundation paying 80% and the government providing the teachers.