Humble Beginnings and A Father’s Vision
Niankoro Yeah Samaké is a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was born on 27 February 1969 in the small village of Ouélessébougou, in Mali, West Africa. He is the son of Tiecourafing Samaké , and is the eighth of eighteen children. Yeah was born into severe poverty and recalls how his mother would tie bandanas tightly around the waist of him and his siblings so they would feel as if something were in their stomachs to help ease their hunger. In spite of their dismal circumstances, Yeah’s father did not want his children to go through life living in adverse poverty and being illiterate, and so, even though they were a part of a commune were only approximately 15% of the population attended school, he envisioned that each of his children would receive an education. Hungry and weak, the children would walk to one of two simple frame school buildings in Ouélessébougou (pronounced way-less-eh-boo-goo) where they would sit together on wood planks and learn from the teacher, who typically held the only textbook.
The Dreams of His Father Become Reality
It would be his father’s vision that would greatly influence the family’s later social status in Ouélessébougou. Yeah’s own credentials and accomplishments are extremely impressive. He has become a social entrepreneur and politician. He founded and serves as the Executive Director of Mali Rising, a Utah-based nonprofit organization that improves Malian educational opportunities. In 2009 he was elected mayor of Ouélessébougou. He is also Vice President of Mali’s League of Mayors, and a current candidate in the 2012 Malian Presidential election. If elected President of Mali, he will be the first Mormon head of state in the world. He holds a Bachelor degree in English as a second language in his home country and a Master’s degree in public policy from Brigham Young University. His siblings have also done equally well in life by earning Doctoral degrees and holding jobs that range from teaching physics at the university to agricultural engineering and education to high ranks in government.
Samaké is thankful for his father’s vision and recounts:
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. . . . [Forty-five percent 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. We were already rich in love. (Charlene Winters; “Lifting Mali“; BYU Magazine; 2010).
The Influence of the LDS Faith
Samaké has also said, “I am also shaped by the faith of my adopted LDS faith, so for me, serving Mali is also a mission.” He was born Muslim, and his first exposure to Christianity came when he attended a Catholic school. He would be the only child in his family to attend this school, and attributes his attending this school to his being more responsive to the gospel later in his life. He recalls:
My first exposure to the Church came through a Peace Corps volunteer who, as far as I know, was not a Mormon. When she left Mali in 1998, she gave me the books she had collected. Included in the stack was a Book of Mormon with a handwritten testimony. I read it and was impressed by its messages. (Charlene Winters; “Lifting Mali“; BYU Magazine; 2010).
He was also blessed by encounters with Church members who were in Mali for humanitarian expeditions or as tourists. He served as a guide and translator for one Latter-day Saint family in particular. He would join them in their prayers and ask questions about the Book of Mormon (Another Testament of Jesus Christ). After completing school, an American family sponsored him to come to New York for an American education. There he came in contact with Mormon missionaries who taught him and he was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in September 2000.
Education at Brigham Young University Paves Road to Future
He later attended Brigham Young University (BYU) where he earned a Master’s degree in public policy and met his wife, Marissa Coutinho, a fellow BYU student. Marissa is Indian, but she was born and raised in Bahrain UAE. She attended BYU to obtain her Bachelor degree in Information Systems. She and Samaké were married in August 2004, and together have two children, Keanen and Carmen.
Samaké eventually started the non-profit Mali Rising Foundation, which focuses on building schools in Mali. Despite having a secure job and comfortable home in Utah, his true heart’s desire was to return to his native land and serve his countrymen. He made the decision to move his family back to Mali and in 2009 ran for Mayor of Ouélessébougou, winning by a landslide.
Samaké and his family are the only members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mali. He strongly believes the service he has rendered to the Malian people will override any concerns about his religion during the 2012 Presidential election. He has said, “They saw my love for my hometown, they saw my passion in serving the people. It is not about what religion you belong to. It is about your willingness to serve your country.”
Returning to His Homeland
The future of Mali at present does not look sanguine. For the past 14 months, the impoverished homeland of Yeah Samaké, presidential incumbent, has seen the government felled by a coup and two-thirds of its territory overrun by Islamist militants. If elected President, the challenges that lay ahead for Samaké are numerous, not to mention the fact that aside from his wife and children, he is the only member of The Church of Jesus Christ in a country that is 95% Muslim. While on a layover in France, during his return trip home after a recent successful fundraising campaign in California in support of his registration for the country’s upcoming presidential election, he commented via Skype, “I am not running for President because of my faith, but my faith will help me be President.” 
He returned home on Friday, 3 May 2013. Included in his luggage were gifts from America for his family, a check of considerable amount given to him by an American hair-products magnate to help fund his campaign, and a well-used copy of the Book of Mormon. It is the principles and teachings contained in the Book of Mormon that have proven to be a guiding light and a source of continual strength for him. That guidance and strength are two things that he will definitely need to lead the people of Mali.
Samaké is a successful entrepreneur. He has spent the past 13 years of his life in Utah running a prosperous charity, and is well on his way to becoming an American citizen. With all of that in his favor, the question that begs an answer is why would anyone of his social status want to leave the life that he now has, to return to his roots to serve the people as their President. Mali, once a model for democracy in West Africa, has become a watchword for abysmal, corrupt governance.  Samaké offers this answer to the question:
The government failed the people, so the people turned to the religious groups that filled the gaps,” Samake says, referring to the success of Islamist militias that, for a time, occupied some of the country’s most historic cities. “Any nation that fails its people opens itself up to that kind of vulnerability, and we need to change that in Mali.” 
He points out that leaving a comfortable Western life and returning to his country to help rebuild it, shows that he is dedicated and committed. His charity work, a $500,000-a-year foundation called Empower Mali that delivers schools, education, solar energy and health care to his hometown of Ouélessébougou, has earned him national name recognition, but he lacks a widespread political base. 
He also points out that he does not want his campaigned to be focused on his religion. He believes “Malians, who are known for their extremely tolerant version of Islam, will overlook his religion in favor of what matters more: his platform, his delivery and his vision. “They won’t vote for me because of my religion, but because I have a burning desire to transform my country into one of the most productive in the world.” 
With his keen sense of leadership, and his unwavering devotion and commitment to serve the people of Mali, Niankoro Yeah Samaké could well become the first Mormon President of any country.