7. Yeah Samake (2013, Mali)
Yeah Samake was born and raised in Ouelessebougou, Mali, the eighth of 18 children. Though drought and poverty have ravaged the small West African country since its inception just over 50 years ago, Samake’s parents made every effort to ensure he and his siblings attended school. “My father knew the only way to break the cycle of poverty was through education,” he says.
After earning a degree in teaching English, Samake discovered there were no jobs for him. “I decided to go back home to my village, where I offered to teach English for free for three years,” he recalls. “It helped me to deepen my roots with my community, and I was able to afford the admiration of my city.”
Samake had met a couple of Latter-day Saint families, and after visiting them in the United States in 2000, he decided to join the Church. He went on to earn a master’s degree in public policy from BYU.
Samake says he always knew he wanted to be involved in politics. “For me, politics is the way of solving problems in the community, and I wanted to be in a leadership position to be able to solve problems.” Wanting to improve health care, education, and employment, Samake felt compelled to run for mayor of Ouelessebougou in 2009. “The country is 90 percent Muslim, so I made sure to tell people that I was LDS. But as I made it an issue, people were asking me, ‘Why are you talking about this? We trust you.’”
According to Samake, leaders at the local level were viewed with suspicion. “There was a complete distrust between the people and the mayor’s office, to the point that people would not pay their taxes. The tax collection rate had dropped below 10 percent, and that was concerning.” He continues, “I told the voters, ‘Together, we can change this city. How? You pay your taxes, and we will use all of the tax money efficiently. I will inform you of how much money was raised and how much was spent. None of it will go to me. If you trust me, you will see the result.’ They had never heard anything like this before,” he recalls. Samake was elected mayor with 86 percent of the vote.
Inspired by the organization of the Church, Samake created a kind of “elders quorum” to ensure complete financial transparency. Each of the 44 villages in Ouelessebougou was asked to select two trusted emissaries who would meet together to discuss the issues in their villages. “Most importantly, I share with them how much each village has paid in taxes and how much money was spent,” Samake explains. “It truly brought Ouelessebougou to a new level. The mayors of other cities saw what was going on and elected me to be vice president of the league of mayors, which is usually reserved for mayors serving their second or usually third term. I am the advocate between the mayors and the central government.”
When the president of Mali came to Ouelessebougou in January of 2012 for the dedication of a solar-powered field, Samake spoke boldly to him during a public speech. “I challenged him, explaining what the citizens expect of his leadership, which was unusual,” he recalls. “Some in the audience, including some very close advisors to the president, came to me and said, ‘We are looking for someone who can inspire this country. The president cannot run for reelection, and we think you should consider running. We will back you up. It became popular demand for me to run for president.’”
Mali's presidential election was scheduled for April 29, 2012. However, the election did not happen due to a military coup that overthrew the Malian government. Elections were rescheduled for July 28, 2013. In the first round of voting, Samake placed 16th out of 27 candidates.
Though he didn't win the presidency, Samake was appointed as the country’s ambassador to India by Mali’s new president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, in 2015.