Yeah Samaké: A Mormon mayor in Mali

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He’s a father, a husband and the mayor of Ouélessébougou, Mali. He’s also a BYU graduate and a former presidential candidate in a country of more than 15 million people.  And yes, he’s a Mormon. Niankoro Yeah Samaké serves the people of his native Mali with honesty, integrity and always a big smile.  

Yeah Samaké, 2012, Mali presidential candidate and current mayor of Ouélessébougou, Mali. (Elliott Miller)

Samaké’s contagious enthusiasm and energy helped propel him into the 2012–13 presidential races in Mali, a nation in west Africa with a 95 percent Muslim population. Many believed Samaké had a chance to become the first Mormon to be elected as president of a country, running in the same year as Mitt Romney’s campaign for president of the United States.

Although Samaké did not win the presidential election, his influence on the people of Mali cannot be overlooked. Samaké, 45, is the eighth of 18 children to be born into an impoverished family. Despite the overwhelming challenges facing their family, Samaké’s father sacrificed to allow each of his children the opportunity to get an education.

Samaké attributes much of his success to his parents, who afforded him an opportunity not available to most Malians. “If you send all of your children to school, you will for sure be hungry. My family may be hungry, but they will never know the darkness of illiteracy. Some nights we were so hungry that we were not able to sleep. Sometimes our mother would tie our bellies with a handkerchief so that our stomachs would shrink. That was the sacrifice to obtain an education.  All 17 of my siblings have attained a bachelor’s degree.”

After completing his bachelor’s degree in teaching English as a second language (TESOL), Samaké faced the challenges created by a national unemployment rate of more than 30 percent. “I decided to go back to my village. I decided to teach English in the middle school, but there was no pay. I decided I would rather teach than to sit around and waste my talents. So I taught for three years without pay,” Samaké said. While in Mali, Samaké was working as a tour guide in the city of Timbuktu when he was introduced to the Green family.

During this time, Samaké grew curious about the Greens’ Christian faith and wanted to learn more. The Greens’ example and friendship with Samaké was instrumental to his conversion. “When we were driving to Timbuktu, many days through the desert, Yeah was sitting with us and became curious about our Christian beliefs. He asked us questions that showed deep and profound understanding of things like nobody else had. As we explained the gospel to him while bouncing through the Sahara Desert in Africa, he became curious and began investigating the church,” Jim Green said.

Samaké was invited to travel to the United States, which eventually led him to pursue a master’s degree in public policy at Brigham Young University. His experiences in America helped provide him with a broader perspective and a new outlook on the challenges facing the people of Mali. On Sept. 14, 2000, on his last day in the U.S. before returning home to Mali, Samaké was baptized by Jim Green as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York City.

Samaké returned to Mali, intent on sharing his Christian beliefs, but quickly learned that his enthusiasm for the gospel was not shared by the members of his family. “My siblings felt humiliated that our father, being a leader in the Muslim faith, would have a member of his family become a Christian. That was humiliation for them. They said I needed to hide my faith.”

Although Samaké’s decision to join the church was not popular, he does not recall ever being persecuted or threatened because of his beliefs. Ironically, Samaké’s boldness and desire to share the gospel continue to provide him with opportunities to lead and serve the people of Mali. “In December of 2005 I had an experience that allowed me to meet President Gordon B. Hinckley. I was with the ambassador of Mali to the United States of America, when President Hinckley pointed all of his fingers at me and said, ‘You take the gospel to all of your people.’  He did not say you should, you might or you will. He told me to take the gospel to the people,” Samaké said.

In 2009, Samaké was elected mayor of Ouélessébougou, Mali (pronounced way-less-eh-boo-goo), with 86 percent of the vote, and immediately set off to improve living conditions in his city. According to Samaké’s 2013 presidential campaign, the municipality was ranked 699 out of 703 in terms of economic development, transparency and management, with a tax collection rate below 10%. Within one year, Ouélessébougou jumped to the top ten cities in Mali, with a tax collection rate of about 68%.

Samaké credits his honest approach and the pattern established by the church as the reasons for such change. “I was very inspired by my faith. I decided to create an elder’s quorum in the city of Ouélessébougou. Each month these (elders) would come to the mayor’s office to see how the money would be spent. It was not about the mayor, it was about the community. In 2013, we collected 100.74% in back taxes. Because of integrity in this little area, we were able to build the first public high school, a large solar panel field, and provide running water. The citizens of Ouélessébougou are now seventh. I thank them for becoming better citizens,” Samaké said.

Of Samaké’s efforts, Elder Stanley G. Ellis, of the First Quorum of the Seventy, said, “We all have opportunities to do good. We should be involved in making our communities and this world a better place. Yeah exemplifies these qualities in many ways throughout his life.” In addition to his duties as mayor of Ouélessébougou, Samaké currently serves as vice president of the league of mayors, regularly escorting several of Mali’s 703 mayors to Utah to provide them with additional skills and the education they need to return and improve their individual municipalities.

Samaké continues to see potential in the people of Mali and believes each of us have the power to transform the lives of other people. For him, the future of Mali has never seemed brighter. “We can change,” he said. “We are not condemned to poverty. We deserve the best. We need a leader who can inspire people. Not to steal from them or not to force them, but to serve them.  If we serve with integrity and serve together, we can do almost anything. No challenge is too big for those who love, care and help one another. Let us all believe that we can do great things. We can transform lives. We can transform countries. We can transform the world. Go forth and serve.”