Growing up in a poor village in Western Africa, Niankoro Yeah Samake did something that only one in five children in Mali do: He lived past the age of 5.
Later on, he did something accomplished by only 15 percent of the people in the region of Ouelessebougou (Wa-less-uh-boo-goo): He learned to read and write.
And then he did something managed by just a select few Malians. First he obtained a bachelor's degree in English as a second language in his home country. Then he came to Utah and earned a master's degree from Brigham Young University.
Samake now hopes to beat the odds once more: While serving as executive director of a charitable foundation in Sandy called Mali Rising, he is running for mayor of Ouelessebougou.
Politics in Mali are very different from politics here, he says. In Mali, each political party puts forth a slate of 23 candidates for councilmen. After the election, the party with the majority then elects the mayor from their elected councilmen.
"My name is at the top of the list," he says, "so if my party gets the majority, I will be the mayor."
Sadly, he says, corruption is a big problem in Malian politics. "It has taken its toll. My party wanted someone who would not want to use taxes for their personal gain. They wanted someone who could provide leadership and vision."
They couldn't find a suitable candidate locally. Party leaders knew of Samake through his work with Mali Rising, which has provided education and other help in the area. "So, they called me here to see if I would be interested."
He was. He has spent time over that past few months campaigning in Mali and will return to Africa for the final two weeks of the campaign the last part of April. Election Day is April 26.
"If I am elected, I will be mayor over 44 villages in the area," he says. "It is a very exciting opportunity."
If elected, Samake will travel back and forth for the next couple of years, still doing work with the foundation here. But his eventual goal has always been to return to his homeland, which he loves deeply. "We will just need to find someone else to take over the foundation."
That has been a chief point of his campaign, he says. "People there don't believe that someone who has lived here wants to come back, so I have to convince them of that."
He has the support of the local Griot, and that helps a lot, Samake says. In Mali, the vetting process for candidates goes through the Griot, who is the repository of history in the village. "He tells the merit of each candidate through the family line. If the grandfather has done anything immoral or been guilty of misconduct, or if the father has, it can discredit you. But my grandfather was the chief of the village, and my father was known as someone who gave a lot to the community."
Samake is proud of that heritage and credits a lot of it for his own desire to improve his country.
Thirteen parties have put forth candidates for the election. His party, the Union for Republic and Democracy, is the second major party in Mali. "It is big and well established, but they didn't have someone who could play the major role they wanted. They are OK with the fact that I will be coming back and forth for awhile. My main role as mayor will be to provide the leadership and vision required to meet our goals."
Meeting goals is nothing new to Samake. He came into contact with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York in 2000 and joined the church. Through the generous sponsorship of a family in Colorado, he was able to go to BYU and earn a master's degree in public policy.
As director of the Mali Rising foundation, he has been involved in numerous projects, including building schools (the ninth school will be finished in June); medical missions that have helped more than 4,000 patients, including 300 surgeries and dental care for 1,000 residents; and providing computers for high schools and universities.
"When I first came here to do my master's degree, I had never even used a computer," Samake says. "Now our students can use them in high school. That's a tremendous thing."
Progress is being made, but there is still a long way to go, he says. "Ouelessebougou consistently ranks in the bottom 10 out of 703 municipalities in Mali." Through leadership and commitment, and the work of others, "I think we can be in the top 10."
He wants a better Mali for his children.
Samake met his wife, Marissa, who is from India, while she was a student at BYU. "She joined the church at BYU," he says. "We have talked about it, and she is OK with going back to Mali." The Samakes have two children, a son, Kenan, age 3; and a daughter, Carmen, 7 months.
Even if he is not elected, Samake will eventually return to his country and hopes to be more involved in leadership and politics. "I have enjoyed freedom, democracy and abundance. I want to help Mali reach a comfortable level. I think it can compete in a global market. I think my people can enjoy abundance, that they can enjoy the freedom of going to school, and escape preventable diseases. That is not too much to ask."
Samake knows it will not be easy. "It is never easy to reach such goals. But I also know it won't come from the outside, that's for sure. It will require the participation of all Mali."
For now, it starts with a vision of what can be. He hopes that the people of his country will share his vision, take it as their own. During his seven years in the United States, Samake has learned an important truth.
"Once the mind is stretched," he says, "it never goes back."