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BYU grad is presidential hopeful — in Mali

Published April 18, 2011 3:30 pm

Politics • Yeah Samake hopes to improve schooling, ease poverty in African country.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Yeah Samake was born in a poverty-stricken village in Ouelessebougou, Mali, the eighth of 18 children, to a father who never learned to read but vowed that Samake and his siblings would get an education.

"That was my father's vision, that it is through education that we can break the cycle of poverty. He himself has never been to school and because of that he imagined there were so many opportunities that he missed in life," said Samake, now 42. "He said his family would go hungry, but they would not know the darkness of illiteracy."

Today, Samake is the mayor of Ouelessebougou and a Brigham Young University graduate who runs a Sandy-based foundation that is finishing construction of its 15th school in Mali. Now he is running for president of the West African nation on a platform that is, not surprisingly, centered on improving education in his homeland.

"Education is key to what I do," said Samake. "Corruption, extreme poverty and everything, they are linked together through the lack of education."

If he wins — and Samake shows no signs of doubt that he will — he would become the country's third president since it adopted its Constitution in 1992 and inherit a host of daunting challenges.

Mali is one of the poorest countries on the planet, where the 14 million residents earn an average of $100 a month. Fewer than half of those over the age of 15 can read or write and one in nine newborns die before their first birthday.

"I think this is a guy who wants to make a difference," said Warner Woodworth, the chairman of the Ouelessebougou-Utah Alliance, who has worked closely with Samake. "He's seen that the current system doesn't work — the corruption in Africa, the poverty in Africa, the ineffectiveness of aid from the U.S., the U.N., Europe, those things aren't really solving the problem. So he's saying, 'Let's look at some other models. Let's find ways to build economic self-reliance from the bottom up instead of the top down.' "

Woodworth met Samake more than a decade ago while doing humanitarian work in Ouelessebougou. Samake worked as a translator for the group and Woodworth bought him his first ice cream and soda. He also introduced him to a family who hosted Samake in the United States in 2000, when Samake converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and eventually earned a master's degree in public policy from BYU.

Although 90 percent of Malians are Muslim, Samake said he doesn't expect his faith will be a major obstacle, but his opponents will raise the issue as a scare tactic.

"My take is, I'm Malian," he said. "I'm not going to proselytize and change people's faith. I'm going to provide much-needed services so the deprivations that they are going through today … [we] can put an end to that."

Louise Illes was one of Samake's professors at BYU, teaching a course on running nonprofits, and said he was an energetic student who clearly wanted to return home and help his fellow Malians.

"Yeah is just a very determined man," Illes said. "It's just been his lifelong commitment and pledge to do something for Mali."

After graduation, Samake began working for a nonprofit and soon became director of a new organization — the Mali Rising Foundation. Samake said the mission has succeeded because it partners with the villages in building schools instead of working through the central government, a philosophy he wants to bring to the presidency.

Samake said Mali needs to build thousands of schools over the next five years to accommodate students, plus hire and train teachers and provide books and electricity. The only way to do it, he said, is to let each village be responsible for its own future.

"Make sure it's not the business of the central government in Mali to provide education, but it's the business of every community to take on its education challenges," Samake said. "In the village, the chief, the parents of the students, are more invested in the success of the students than the president of the country."

In 2009, based in part on the success of the foundation, Samake was elected mayor of Ouelessebougou with 86 percent of the vote. He has focused on restoring public confidence in bureaucracy and erasing a budget deficit by calling together a "Circle of Elders," made up of representatives from each of the 44 villages to communicate back to the people.

Last year, when Mali's President Amadou Toure visited Ouelessebougou to dedicate a new solar project, Samake took the unusual step of challenging the government to do more for the citizens.

"The prayer of the needy is only answered by the actions of the president," Samake said he told the president. He said it was time for young Malians to take more leadership responsibilities and that government power should be decentralized.

The speech resonated and a national group of young people asked Samake if he would run for president when Toure was term-limited out of office.

Samake agreed and in the coming weeks will be raising money in Utah, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

He also said he will make Mali independent of foreign aid within three years — a bold promise for a nation dependent on international help. But he says the investments simply don't work.

"It is enriching individuals and not reaching the people who need it the most," Samake said. "If foreign aid could solve our problems, it should have been solved by now. I am very passionate about ending the dependency on foreign aid. We will never become a free nation if we're eating at the palm of other nations."

Illes said it will be a "hard road" to the presidency for the man she calls her "Malian son," but she is hopeful.

"He's young compared to the other candidates. He's created his own party, so he's not running in a major political party. He's got a lot of obstacles he's got to overcome," she said. "I think he understands his odds, but I wouldn't put it past the realm of possibility and I hope he does it." —

Mali

The West African country is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its 14 million residents earn an average $100 a month. One in nine newborns dies before a first birthday. The country is 90 percent Muslim. —

Who is Yeah Samake?

(pronounced Yay sa-MA-kay)

Age • 42

Born • Ouelessebougou, Mali, one of 18 children

Education • Earned a degree in teaching English in Mali; received a master's in public policy from Brigham Young University

Occupation • Has run Mali Rising, a nonprofit that has built 15 schools in Mali; elected mayor of Ouelessebougou in 2009; running for president of the nation in 2012.

Family • He met his wife, Marissa Coutinho, who is Indian, while at BYU. They have a 5-year-old son and 2½-year-old daughter.