He’d brought his family to Utah during the pandemic. But the more he followed the developments in Mali, the more restless he became. “I cannot stay here,” he thought. Due to COVID-19, there were no flights to Mali, so he hatched a plan: Fly to Ivory Coast, Mali’s neighbor to the west, and rent a car to drive to the border. From there, he’d hire two motorcycle drivers to get him across — one for himself, one for his luggage. Once in Mali, he’d rent another car and drive to Bamako.
As Samaké tells me this story, his eyes widen. We’re sitting in his friend’s home in Highland, Utah — he’s in town for a few weeks to work with his Utah-based nonprofit. He lifts his hand, and I see his Brigham Young University cufflinks; pinned to his traditional kaftan robe is the logo of the political party he formed in Mali: Parti Pour L’Action Civique et Patriotique, the Party for Civic and Patriotic Action.
Samaké’s plan in 2020 worked, and he traveled from Utah to join the local Malian protests. Later that year, a military coup forced Mali’s controversial president to resign. But political stability was short-lived. Several of the country’s strongest leaders fled after the coup and another died from COVID-19. Soon, another military takeover installed a different leader. It was the the third coup in a decade, the fifth since Mali won its independence from France in 1960.
To outside observers, Mali is a country rife with potential but plagued by corruption. It has vast natural resources, but too often unstable government and lingering colonial influence obstruct progress. Even so, some experts foresee “a new awakening,” led by young Malians. Armed with technology and global perspectives, the younger generations are demonstrating and calling for change. A democratic presidential election is scheduled for early 2024, and Samaké — the father of three, BYU grad and convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — is stepping up. He announced his candidacy last month.
Should the predominantly Muslim country elect him, he’d be Mali’s first Christian president. He’d also be the first practicing Latter-day Saint head of state, not just in Mali, but around the world. He’s been a mayor and an ambassador, and his two presidential campaigns, in 2013 and 2018, have led him to this moment, he says. A coup interrupted his first campaign, and militant attacks on polling stations the second. But the 2024 election offers a fresh start both for Samaké and the country he hopes to lead.
“People are seeking a leader that can help provide stability in the country, that can bring prosperity to the people,” Samaké tells me. “They are looking at track records. And that’s what I present to them.”
When Yeah Samaké was born, 4 of every 10 Malian children died before reaching age 5. The Samaké home learned this firsthand — five of Yeah’s siblings died young.
Even so, Yeah Samaké survived, and so, too, did 17 of his brothers and sisters. Their father never got an education but swore his children would. Money was in short supply in the Samaké home, and the family sometimes had to choose between food and an education. It was never much of a choice, though, and on the long nights when hunger kept Yeah from sleeping, his mother would cinch a bandana tight around his torso to ease the pain in his stomach.
When morning came, the Samaké children arose and went off to school while most of their friends went to the fields to work. When neighbors criticized Tiecourafing Samaké, Yeah’s father, for starving his children, he told them he’d rather his family go hungry than know the darkness of illiteracy. “We believed in his vision to end poverty in our family, and he was right,” Yeah recalled. “But the neighbors were not wrong either.”
The Samaké children eventually split off in a number of illustrious paths: two doctoral degrees, a chemist, a veterinarian, a high school physics teacher. Yeah learned Bambara in the home and French at school; his parents wanted him to be a lawyer, and he wanted to be an English teacher. They said he would be going to law school, because it paid better. He said if they forced him, he would not study and he would flunk out.
“It was the first time I was a disobedient kid,” Yeah said. The rebel prevailed, and Samaké moved to the capital and earned a degree in English. He became involved in nonprofit work, and when one Peace Corps volunteer friend was preparing to leave Mali, she gave him a stack of books she’d collected during her travels. Buried in the pile was a Book of Mormon.
Samaké read the book and was struck by its message, but there were no missionaries or church members in Mali at the time. His first contact came when Latter-day Saint tourists came to Mali and hired Samaké as an interpreter.
One couple from Colorado was so impressed by him they sponsored him to come to the U.S.; there, he met with missionaries — in Colorado, in Utah and in New York. He attended a BYU-Utah football game in Provo, which he marks as his first transformative spiritual experience (he felt a transcendent peace during the opening prayer). After navigating the church’s careful policy regarding citizens from Muslim-majority nations, out of concern for their safety, Samaké joined the faith.
Samaké’s next step was postsecondary education in Provo. He thrived at BYU — he served as Black Student Union president and earned a master’s in public policy. He also met his wife, Marissa Coutinho, a business undergrad from India. The first time they met, Marissa was sitting at the Wilkinson Student Center. “It was like lightning struck,” Samaké says. He approached her and said, “You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” She declined his invite to a date.
Marissa later warmed up, and the couple eventually married. They started a comfortable life together in Utah, and Samaké was hired as executive director of a nonprofit now called Mali Rising. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that Utah wasn’t the place for him. “America is a great place, a lot of freedoms, a great place to raise a family,” he said. “But America doesn’t need me.”
The first step toward returning to his country was virtual. In 2009, Samaké — still in Utah — campaigned for mayor of his hometown, Ouéléssébougou (named for his ancestor, Oulessee). It’s a small town, claiming some 12,000 residents — small enough that the city website has a list of the town’s most prominent families and their origins. Samaké won that election, running on an anti-corruption platform.
The town’s government was powerless, he said, because less than 10% of its residents paid taxes; few paid taxes because corrupt leaders were treating government finances like their personal trust funds. At the start of his tenure, Samaké says, Ouéléssébougou was ranked as one of Mali’s 10-worst managed cities, of some 700; by the end, according to a story in Slate, it was top 10.
It took some time for the Samakés to convince themselves that Mali was the right place for their family, especially amid political crises and armed conflict. As Christians, the Samakés would also be in the vast minority — some 95% of Malians are Muslim — and at the time the Church of Jesus Christ did not yet have formal recognition in the country. Christians have been targeted and killed in some parts of Mali. The choice to leave the U.S. would mean leaving comfort and safety.
But they felt a call, and they went.
Mali was once the capital of its continent, the crown jewel of Africa. In the 14th century, emperor Mansa Musa tapped into the area’s natural resources — gold, salt, ivory — and built a trade route that revolutionized the region. It is said that when Musa journeyed through Cairo, with an entourage of tens of thousands, he brought so much gold that it decreased the value of Egyptian currency for a decade.
By the time the French arrived in the 1800s, Mali was no longer a secret. But a century-and-a-half of colonial rule fractured the state, and internal regional conflict — the Mandés to the south, the Tuaregs to the north — outlived Mali’s liberation from French rule in 1960. Tensions still exist.
Islamic extremist groups terrorize the north, and annual civilian casualties at the hands of these groups number is in the hundreds. Though France’s influence on the country is waning, Malians still view their ex-colonizer as an economic leach. In recent weeks, reports have emerged about a Russian paramilitary group leading executions throughout the country. Some 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers patrol the country, though frequent attacks make it the deadliest peace mission in the world.
This is the Mali that Samaké wants to lead, and he’s ambitious enough to believe he can fix it. “Audacious” is the term he prefers — that’s how he describes his 2018 campaign, and his 2024 sequel will be no different.
In the United States, he has an eclectic group of supporters. Matthew McConaughey, the full-time actor and part-time political activist, has donated to his humanitarian work. So has John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of the hair product company Paul Mitchell. Utah tech mogul Josh Coates is a supporter, and when former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert endorsed Samaké in 2013, he described him with words like “wonderful” and “inspired.” Herbert was governor when Samaké helped broker an agreement between schools in Utah and Mali’s flagship university.
Samaké learned from his first campaign that fighting corruption isn’t at the top of the average Malian’s list of concerns. “That doesn’t put food on the table,” he tells me — they want solutions that do. He rattles off Mali’s natural resources — “uranium, cobalt, lithium, gold, natural gas, you name it” — as the key to pulling the country out of poverty.
“Mali has become the battleground of superpowers,” he says, referring to the foreign companies and powers that poach Mali of its capital. “And so this incredible natural wealth is not being used to improve the lives of people,” Samake says. “Mali is one of the poorest nations, despite everything that God has given us.”
“It’s not about me. If it were about me, I would not have left America in the first place to go back home.”
Samaké’s plan? Abandon colonial agreements, tap into Mali’s natural wealth and become self-sufficient. Within three years of his administration, he wants Mali to be completely independent of foreign aid.
“We have what it takes to be an emerging nation,” Samaké says. “Of course, we need leadership. The most important ingredient is someone who won’t be belligerent to our partners, but who will create a dynamic whereby we have a win-win situation.”
Some of those partners surely include India, Singapore and the eight other Asian countries to which Samaké served as ambassador from 2015 to 2018. He brought the Indian vice president to Mali, the first visit from a high-ranking Indian official; he formed scholarship programs for Malians to study in India and Bangladesh; he negotiated a $100 million deal to provide energy to rural communities in southern Mali.
But two-and-a-half years into his ambassadorship, Samaké again felt restless. The president who appointed him, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, was four years into his tenure but had failed to enact the changes Samaké had hoped he would. Samaké saw an opportunity to go back to Mali and run against him.
The decision was arduous. “An ambassadorship is a privilege, it’s a comfort,” Samaké said. “To abandon that for an unknown was difficult.” When he told Keïta his plan, the president didn’t believe him. But Samaké was undeterred. “It’s not about me,” Samaké told the president. “If it were about me, I would not have left America in the first place to go back home.”
Samaké’s ties to Utah remain strong. He and Marissa now work on Empower Mali, another Utah-based nonprofit that builds schools and water pumps throughout Mali. The Samakés’ son, a teenager, plays basketball at Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant. When the Samakés and their two daughters — ages 13 and 2 — come to Utah, they stay with James Arrington, the chairman of the nonprofit’s board.
“We treat him like a brother, because he is a brother,” Arrington said.
Arrington is one of Samaké’s closest friends, and he has plenty of stories to tell. Several months ago, Arrington told me, Samaké received a unique invitation from the Tuareg leaders, a lighter-skinned ethnic minority group that controls much of northern Mali. They’d heard of his humanitarian work and wanted to know more about his political party. Arrangements were made, and on the decided night, the Tuareg judge and his councilman arrived at Samaké’s hotel room in northern Mali.
The Tuareg leaders were dressed in dark robes and their faces obscured with their traditional tagelmust turbans; Samaké, all alone, was at their mercy. The judge, called qadi, offered Samaké an ultimatum. “We will support you in your presidency,” the Tuareg qadi said, “if you allow us to implement Sharia law throughout the country.”
Samaké — who, if he accepted their offer, would be forced to give up his Christianity to practice Islam — immediately offered his hand to the qadi. But instead of shaking in agreement, he rotated his grip so the back of the qadi’s hand faced up. “The majority of Malians are Muslim,” Samaké said, “and they have voted for a secular government.”
“The majority of Malians are dark-skinned, like me,” he continued. “How would you feel if, as your president, I catered to the needs of the dark-skinned majority over the light-skinned minority?”
“That would be unacceptable,” the qadi said.
“Malians want leadership,” Samaké says, “not any particular religion.”
Samaké nodded. “In the same way, I cannot cater to the demands of the Muslim majority to the exclusion of the non-Muslim minority. As president, I must be president to all.”
The qadi immediately understood. “You are a man of truth,” he said, vowing to support Samaké in the presidential election. Samaké’s political party is now active and growing in northern Mali, thanks to the Tuareg qadi and his councilmen.
Will the rest of Mali, a predominantly Muslim country facing the constant threat of Islamic extremists, accept a Christian president? Samaké thinks so. His faith was a storyline in both of his previous presidential runs — in 2012, when Jon Huntsman Jr. and Mitt Romney clamored for support in the U.S., one American news outlet profiled Samaké with the headline, “The Other Mormon Candidate.”
“For Yeah, his faith is everything,” said Kirk Jowers, a longtime friend of Samaké and general counsel for Romney’s political action committee in 2012. “His conversion to the faith, then those connections and that vision, completely changed his life.”
Not everyone shares that perspective. Prominent Malian clerics told Samaké during both of his previous campaigns that the country wasn’t ready for a non-Muslim head of state. “I don’t believe that,” Samaké tells me. “I’ve never made my faith a secret. I own it. Malians want leadership,” Samaké says, “not any particular religion.”
Mali needs someone, Samaké posits, with a track record of proven success, with a plan to pull the country out of poverty. He likes his chances — his name, after two campaigns, is well known — and he has a full 20 months to gear up.
“I do know that the challenge is great,” Samaké says. “I understand the complexity of the situation.” And then, with his voice slightly lowered, he says: “We have to seek inspiration. We have to seek guidance from a higher power.”