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Because Yeah Samake will not take money from those who would like to buy his influence in Mali, he needs our financial help to be elected president. Please donate to his campaign. Even a small amount can make a difference. Go to his donation page here.

Images by Scot Facer Proctor.

For the past two years, Yeah Samake, has been the ambassador from Mali to India, a job which provided him every material need he could imagine—a chauffeur, a cook, a swimming pool and fancy schools for his kids. This could have been enticing to a man who grew up so hungry and ailed by starvation that his mother tied handkerchiefs around his belly at night, to ease the pain. What could be better as an adult than having your material needs met, when you grew up scrambling for bread?

Yet, in January of this year, Yeah resigned from his ambassadorial position, so he could run for president of Mali, a job that few would really want in a country riddled with poverty, corruption and tribal rebellion in the north. Yeah wants the job enough so that this is his second run for president. His first run in 2012, came to a surprising end when a military coup d’état toppled the Malian government just 40 days before the presidential election was to be held in April.

When the country became stable enough again, the election was rescheduled in 2013, but by this time Yeah, who will not take money inside Mali, had run out of funds and could not make it to the finish line. Yeah, the first—and for a long time—the only Latter-day Saint in Mali, said that to take money for a political campaign means that favors are expected and influence is purchased—and he will have no part of it. That, he says, is what is ruining his country.

He is campaigning under the same terms for the upcoming July 29th election.

The Irony

Mali is a country rich in natural resources. Including gold, uranium, phosphate, salt and limestone. In a just world, the Malians would have a booming economy whose prosperity trickled down to each family. Instead, Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 178 out of 182 countries in the 2009 UNDP Human Development Index. This plays out in human tolls, since it is estimated that 60% of the population lives below the poverty line, most of them women and children in the backwaters and rural areas.

This is a condition, Yeah knows, and could have been his inheritance, but for his father who was convinced that education was the way out of the trap of poverty and insisted that each of his children go to school—even if it meant giving up their child labor in the fields and the family having to skimp on food.

Yeah said, “My father knew we would feel deprivation from time to time, but the odds weren’t with us anyway. When I was growing up, it was hard to survive. 45% of Malian children would die from malaria, diarrhea, and preventable diseases. We knew the challenges of staying well, but we believed in our father’s wise resolve to have us educated. He is a hero to me, and any sacrifices were worth it.”

He attended university in Bamaco, Mali’s capital city, studying teaching English as a second language, but when he returned to his home city of Ouelessebougou, he found no teaching job. Believing passionately in education for his people, he taught for three years in his village school as a volunteer, supporting himself as a translator for the Peace Corps and Ouelessebougou-Utah alliance, an NGO devoted to helping Malians improve their health, education and economic opportunities.

His introduction to the Latter-day Saints came when a member of the Peace Corps left behind a few books and among them was the Book of Mormon. An LDS couple sponsored his coming to the United States, and he was accepted at BYU where he received a master’s degree. There he met and married Marissa Coutinho, a young woman from India, and together they had a home not far from Provo. Yeah became the executive director of Mali Rising, a foundation dedicated to building schools in rural villages in his home country.

Just as he recently did, when he gave up the privileges of being an ambassador, for something more selfless, Yeah and his family had a comfortable life in Utah—so far away from the tatters of an impoverished childhood. Mali could have just been a far-away dream. But it wasn’t enough to stay comfortable, secure and half a world away—not when his people at home were suffering. He also had the advantages of having an equally selfless wife, which made all the difference for him.

In 2009, he learned that the current mayor of his hometown, Ouelessebougou, was running for re-election after having been in power for 10 years. Because Yeah was respected in Mali, the mayor, who was also a relative, hoped for his help. Yeah couldn’t support someone who had fostered corruption. Ouelessebougou, that encompasses 44 villages, was ranked 699 out of 703 communities, near the bottom of the barrel. It was a region suffering from underhandedness.


After some family discussion that involved questions like his children’s education in Mali vs. Utah County, the Samake’s decided Yeah should run for mayor, a race which he handily won at 86% of the vote. When he took over, fewer than 10% of the population were paying taxes and the government employees salaries were behind six months.

It was in this atmosphere, however, that Yeah implemented a program based on integrity and transparency. Taking a lead from his LDS faith, he had each village form an “elder’s quorum,” a group of leaders in each village that would discuss the budget in a transparent way, then allocate funds for the improvement of people’s lives.

This was a novel idea, because a culture of corruption had so firmly grown up, that it entangled the people on every level. Particularly, the local leaders and the president led governments fat with graft.

By the end of Yeah’s term, he had turned things around. More than 96% of the people were paying their taxes because they believed it would translate back into their lives in benefits. Yeah had built a hospital, the region’s first high school, a new water pump system to produce the old wells and created the largest solar panel field in all of West Africa. His leadership was recognized and his integrity praised.

Samake for President 2018

Now Yeah is back on the campaign trail, once again putting his own comfort aside, and fighting for his people. He reminds the people, “These political leaders have not kept their promise. They promised stability, and they have not brought you stability. They promise relief from all the forces that keep you down, but you are still down.”

The terrorist violence in the north of Mali which is largely inter-tribal and stirred up by al-Qaida, is growing toward the center of the country.

Water is one of the biggest issues in the country. People feel the government has failed them because they haven’t increased access to potable water, and when people are thirsty or pour dirty water into their pot, they need help right now. Villagers have protested and blocked the road. They lose loyalty to any greedy, central government and turn their allegiance to their tribes, which fight with each other and are rife for influence from terrorist groups.

“As I started campaigning, I traveled to many of the villages. Their needs are exactly the same, and first and foremost, it is water and infrastructure.” Yeah dipped into some of his meager funds to begin helping these villages now. “I couldn’t help but help them,” he said. He has already begun doing small projects in villages, like bringing tractors to some to improve their farming techniques.

“I evaluate the need in these communities and reach out to my network and we help those villages,” he said. “I reach out to my network and we help those villages, even though I don’t yet have public power, nor the resources that accompany that.”

Yeah says, “The campaign is going well. The popular support is going faster than our ability to organize.” The Malian people, who have too often been victims of a corrupt government, are yearning for the integrity and service that he represents. He notes, “We need to make a norm where corruption is unacceptable. We need leaders who focus on the needs of the people instead of embezzling from the people.

“Even though Mali is no longer ruled by a colonial government, the current leaders act just the colonials did to exploit the people, extract the resources and sell them to off shore bank accounts, leaving the people to suffer.

“The time has come,” he said, “to transform our natural wealth into opportunities for the people. Since the old guard has failed to do that, it will take some fresh perspectives.

“My message,” he says, “is leadership with integrity. The only way to bring significant change is by the power of small, consistent actions. We don’t have to do spectacular actions every day, but as we are consistent, doing the things the country needs, we can make extraordinary results. When the people in Mali hear my message, they clearly associate with it because it is totally different. It is concrete, small actions—like building schools, transforming the small community, drilling wells, giving people scholarships that lead to extraordinary change. It’s a message that sticks with the people.”

Within the first months of Yeah’s tenure, he plans to bring the opinion leaders of Mali together to sit and discuss the way forward. “I want to make reforms that will clearly define the terms and conditions of living together.,” he says. How will we redistribute power? Power today is in the hands of very few people. The current president’s son is the president of the Commission of Defense.

“We have to use shared powers to stabilize the country. We have to have a new national dialogue that is first organized at the local level and then moves finally to the national. We will have a power structure that represents all the factors of Malian society.” What Yeah Samake is talking about is not just lifting a nation from poverty, but also stopping it from dissolving as impoverished factions, inspired by terrorists, seek to take down the central government.

What role has being a Latter-day Saint played in his drive? “What sets me apart of all the candidates is my sense of service because I have a testimony of Jesus Christ who has come and served us. The knowledge of that transforms the way I relate to others and my worldview. My commitment to others is real and is different from what you see in the normal leadership in Africa, which is exploitative.”

He also believes that providing leadership with integrity in Mali, it serves as a pressure on the other African leaders to arise to a whole new level of leadership without corruption. A successful bid for the presidency from Yeah Samake has the promise to impact all of Africa.

It takes guts and courage to give up comfort first in Utah, and then in India to live for a higher purpose, but Yeah has had good practice at that.

Courage to Stand

Just before that 2012 election, it was rebels within Mali’s own military that attempted a coup to take over the government. They also took over the palace, the national television and placed armed soldiers throughout the city at checkpoints. People were unsecure, unsure what to do. Yeah, too, was discouraged, looking at his country rent, from within, threatened by terrorists. Sunk on the couch, his wife Marissa, (whom he met at BYU) came to him, gave him a little kick in the shins and said, “What are you going to do about this military coup? You have to do something.”

She understood the important role Yeah had to play in bringing stability and happiness to his country. If Mali can grow to be a strong democracy, able to beat back jihadists, al Qaeda and others like them, other African nations will be emboldened in their efforts to stand strong against terrorists. However, if Mali fell, it would be the jihadists who would be emboldened, rolling over the weak governments of Africa and topping nations as they instituted sharia law.

But before the terrorists could be confronted, Mali’s own military had to give the government back to the people. At Marissa’s prodding, Yeah arose, put on his bullet-proof jacket, got a driver and a car and drove through his city’s dangerous streets, looking to find the leader of this military takeover.

Imagine a movie like this. Soldiers armed with guns everywhere, the city on high alert, checkpoints on key corners, but Yeah drove on, finally making his way to the heavily-guarded compound where the military leader was. Soldiers, hyped up in their rebellion and well-armed, stopped him at the gate of the compound, pointing a gun in his face and asking if he had an appointment with the coup leader. “Yes, I do,” he said.

Yeah walked in, sat down across from the man who had just taken the government and said, “I know you love your country. I love this country. Give the government back to the people.”

It was a dramatic moment, and later when he made a plea to the military to return the government to the people, some caught the message on their iPhones and it went viral. Yeah became a symbol of standing for democracy.

If Yeah’s bid for the presidency is successful, he will be the first LDS president of a nation and lead a country that badly needs the integrity and courage he offers.

Because Yeah Samake will not take money from those who would like to buy his influence in Mali, he needs our financial help to be elected president. Please donate to his campaign. Even a small amount can make a difference. Go to his donation page here.

Yeah says, “A victory is not just an election. A victory is to make Mali a model of success.”