(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.
On one of his trips back to Mali in 2009, the citizens came to him, wanting him to run for mayor of Ouelessebougou, with a population of 55,000 spread in 44 villages.
He was intrigued because he was sorely aware of the problems in the region. Earlier, one by one, each of the mayoral candidates had come to him asking for financial support. He had asked each one, “If I help you, what are you going to do for the people?” They had no answers. He said, “I found out that the mayor and other officials were taking the tax money and using it for themselves.
“I decided that day that I had to do something. If I don’t do anything,” he said, “I’ll be an accomplice and this is the city of my forefathers.” (Yeah’s great, great, great grandfather was the Ouelesse for whom the city was named.)
On his way back from that trip to Africa, he decided to run for the office. He had told his wife from the beginning of their courtship that he intended to take his experience back to Mali to help there, and that they wouldn’t be permanent residents of Utah. “Everything I did was geared to moving back home. I could stay in America and enjoy all the freedom and abundance. I may need America, but my country needs me, with all the planning skills and training I have received. I cannot miss this call to serve”
Yet when it came right down to it, his wife had major concerns. She didn’t know the language. Now they had two children—and a major concern was how to provide for them. Marrissa said, “I don’t want us to become poor.”
Yeah, however, said, “I am not afraid of poverty. We can overcome poverty with the power that we have within.”
Once back in Mali, Yeah visited all the 44 villages that make up Oulessebougou. Only about 10% of the people were paying taxes because they had lost such trust in their public officials. Out of 703 cities in Mali, this city was 699th in governance. Government workers were six months behind in pay. Local people weren’t participating in their government.
Yeah came to the people and said, try me. Pay your taxes and see if we don’t stay true to our word and provide better services for you. 65% of the people began to pay their taxes, and the city began to turn around.
Yeah made a letter head that said “at your service,” and reminded people that those who led the country were only in the service of the people. To make the citizens more involved, he created an “Elders Quorum” consisting of two representatives from every village who came to together to determine how much money was collected, what the priorities were and where the money would be spent.
The development of the area became not just the mayor’s own business, but it was a work that belonged to everyone. It was so successful that the central government of Mali began to notice Ouelessebougou and chose to put a solar panel field there, the first in all of west Africa.
Under Yeah, now for the first time the area had a public high school, a hospital, and running water and the central government of Mali invested more money in that city than anywhere else in the nation. People were so happy with the model that everyone wanted to claim credit. NGO’s began to focus their attention there.
It wasn’t long before Yeah was elected to be the vice-president of the League of Mayors, the only first-time mayor to be elected to the position. Yeah said, “It was an incredible opportunity because it put me in touch with all of the mayors of the country.” His agenda was that the power should be transferred from the central government to the local leaders and people. He believes that government is best and most accountable when it is closest to the people.
When the president of Mali came to Ouelessebougou to dedicate the solar panel field, Yeah was also to give a talk. The president’s office said he must forward a copy of his talk to them before the event. Yeah complied, but the day of the event, he read the usual greetings from his prepared talk and then threw the rest aside and began to speak from his heart to the people.
He spoke passionately about government decentralization and said “Decentralization equals development. In the president’s hands lies the responsibility to provide sound leadership to train and empower local people so that Mali isn’t in the position of asking for aid.
“You should have seen the eyes of the president,” he said. “I thought, oh mayor, you are in trouble.”
Far from being in trouble, Yeah had impressed and inspired the people. One of the men in the entourage, who led an organization who had gotten the president elected, came up and told Yeah that if he would consider running for president, his organization would back him.
From that day, Yeah decided to run for president of Mali, and he has formed his own political party based on his vision called the Party for Civil and Patriotic Action.
Younger than the next closest candidate to him in age by 20 years, he appeals to Mali’s young population and he has become a media favorite. “The country is looking for a change, and they cannot point to a model for change. That is why what I am talking about hits home.” he said.
“Mali has the possibility of becoming a model democracy in Africa. Mali is not poor. Mali is poor in leadership. If I am elected, Mali will become one of the most relevant countries in all of Africa, not dependent on foreign aid. It will be dependent on the power within, the greatness of the people. They have to have leader to bring the power to them.”
Because he doesn’t want to be beholden to corrupt money in his country, Yeah is on a fund-raising tour, particularly in Utah. He has brought with him several mayors from his country and they are visiting local governments and city councils to learn more about how the process works.
In Mali, all the candidates face a general election, which will be held in April, and then if no one gets above 51%, a run-off election is held in May.
You can hear Yeah Samake speak for free, Monday night, December 12, at 6:30 at the UCCU Center at Utah Valley University—a family night special.
Click here for more information.