One Man's Vision: How Yeah Samake Will Change Mali Through Education

Saturday, May 11, 2013


Progeny to a nation of opportunities and facilities that would be the stuff of miracles in a worse-heeled country, the ignorant, gluttonous exploitation and thanklessness so ubiquitous between the white picket fences of the middle-class American breed happy, smiling Frankenstein monsters of political leaders too plastic and unacquainted with critical issues like poverty, illiteracy, and corruption. That breach between quandary and captain remains inaccessible if the Babel of dissimilarity obstructs resolution from being reached. To remedy social ills, a leader must speak the language of the crisis. He cannot expect to understand an issue having only observed it from the comfort of a white picket fence. The parallelism of sympathy is required. Though too few from the bottom are able to persevere to positions of power, 2013 Malian Presidential candidate Yeah Samake, a man born and raised in poverty, has come forward to offer change for his country through education—change made valid through the success he has already achieved.       
After my interview with Yeah Samake. I'm on the left, Yeah is in the middle, and Michael Devonas (founder of the BYU chapter of Empower Mali) is on the right. It was such a wonderful experience being able to meet and talk with him! He's a wonderful man, an incredible leader, and an inspiration to us all!

Raised in Ouélessébougou, a town he would later be elected the mayor of, Yeah was no stranger to the hunger that accompanied the brutal penury he and his family were subject to. “Some nights, my mother would come and hear us sobbing in bed, and she would tie our stomachs so that they would shrink to reduce the pain of our hunger.” Though he had never been to school, Yeah’s father had a dream that each member of his family would receive an education: He had a vision that only through education we could break the cycle of poverty, so he sent all of his children to school. In our community that was unheard of… the people of the community warned him, they said, "If you send all of your children to school, your family will go hungry." He was so determined that, when he was asked, he said, “My family will go hungry, but my family will not know the darkness of illiteracy.”
Despite being obliged to surrender such basic necessities as food, Yeah believes every sacrifice one can make for education to be advantageous.
"We paid an enormous price to be there. Like I said, we had to forego the daily meal to be there. We had to give the pain, the hunger, to go to school, but every sacrifice that you can make for education is good… It gives you freedoms that you have never had. Freedom to provide for your family. Freedom to get yourself trained. Freedoms that cross incredible boundaries. Together, we can break that chain [of poverty]. We have the power to go out and be better citizens—to have hope that tomorrow will be a better day than today."
After receiving his Bachelor’s degree in Bamako, Yeah traveled to the United States to obtain a Master’s degree in Public Policy at Brigham Young University.
“I had numerous experiences at BYU that helped build a foundation of leadership… The rigorous training at BYU through this program has truly helped me better understand how we can make the right decision for the right cost. Whether it is the current value or the future value of any decision, it is very important for a leader to have this background. There are also immeasurable, intangible qualities of a leader that you don’t learn from schools, like integrity, like help and service, but even then I feel that BYU truly promoted, instilled, and augmented my sense of service for others. As we know, BYU’s model is: 'Enter to learn, go forth to serve. So, it has served me to serve others."
Through the Kennedy Center for International Studies, Yeah was able to obtain an internship at the United Nations, where he first discovered he wanted to serve in a nonprofit organization. It was out of this desire that sprung the Daily Dose Foundation, which became Mali Rising, finally growing into the Empower Mali Foundation. Overall, Yeah has built no fewer than fifteen schools:"These schools are innovative. They're cost effective and environmentally friendly... But the [bottom] line is that every community that we approach, they pay 20% of the cost, the government provides the teachers so we build this incredible partnership that is unique where the government provides the teachers and the villagers provide the land… Empower Mali raises the money… the remaining 80%. Once we build the school, it becomes immediately self-sustaining. We don’t go back and put money into any of our schools. The villagers, once we are done, they keep the schools, and we come back to check how the schools are functioning. That’s how we are transforming lives, helping children in Mali."
After completing his formal education, Yeah viewed the corruption of his hometown’s government with new eyes. He now had new ideas, new knowledge, and a new vision—and felt as though he had the obligation to make them reality. He ran for the position of mayor of Ouélessébougou, winning by a landslide on the platform of transparency and honesty. He promised tribe leaders he would not pocket a single tax dollar, but would consult the tribe leaders as to where the tax money would be applied based on what deficiencies existed in each chief’s community. Not only did he make good on his promise, winning the trust and support of the citizens of Ouélessébougou, he completely transformed the town’s economy, improving employment rate and increasing the rate of citizens who paid their taxes from 10% to 68% in a single year. His success attracted the attention of American sponsors and national Malian leadership and both began to pour money into Ouélessébougou, making it possible for the once deteriorating town to become a model community, complete with modern public schools, a state of the art hospital, as well as other superior civic, educational, and medical amenities. 
He was then approached by the Malian President’s entourage as a potential candidate in the upcoming elections. Yeah was motivated to revolutionize Mali the same way he revolutionized Ouélessébougou. Before the 2012 elections, however, mutinying soldiers distraught with the government’s handling of the Tuareg rebel situation overthrew the government in a military coup. Though he was deeply disappointed, Yeah continued to tirelessly struggle for peace and progress. After great effort and an interim government, Mali is now ready for democratic presidential elections—and Yeah is eager to lead the country into a golden age of a better education system, medical programs, and an improved economy. Yeah is also an inspiration for all those who wish to get more involved, especially students, and he offers this advice:
"You cannot do it alone. I cannot do this alone. It takes people to believe that change is possible. You know, a Harvard professor said, 'How do you measure the worth of your life? It’s not in terms of things you accumulate, but in terms of the impact you made on the lives of others. That’s how you measure the worth of your life.' We cannot self-pity and believe that we’re too small to do anything, that we’re too alone to do anything. We need to get started. We need to get involved. The greatest happiness, the greatest joy, does not come from the things we have, but from the service we render to others… However big the challenge is, let’s get to work. Most people can make a big difference. With an organization like Empower, all you need to do is ask the members of it. You will be directed to do small things that will not take your focus away from you education, but it your spare time you can use it to get people involved, to inspire other students. That’s where it starts. You cannot wait until you’re city councilman to do things in your city. You can start now, as a student. Not only will you help others, but you will be the first recipient of the benefits of your service. It’s a training program for leadership skills. So, while doing so, you will build personality for yourself while you’re making an impact on the lives of others. Today, you don’t need to travel to New York to raise money in New York. We are in the age of technology, where we can do a lot of things… You are special because you believe and can make a difference. You can look into the eyes of the children in Africa without even traveling, saying, 'We can provide education for this girl, or for this boy.' You are doing it from here. Tell others about it. Most people want to help but they have no idea where to start. One day at a time. One evening at a time. One meeting at a time. You can encourage each other, you can inspire each other."

Edinburgh and St. Andrews, Scotland

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The first four days in Scotland have been incredible.

Paige, Natalie, Hannah, Nathan, and I arrived a day before the rest of the group, catching a ride on a double-decker bus from the airport and spending the night in a seedy, but overwhelmingly hip hostel called the High Street Hostel on a side road called Blackfriars. Nearly everyone had piercings, weird, shaved heads, or long, scraggly beards. We slept in a smelly, cramped room with sixteen other men and women, all speaking different languages from all over the world. Even though I didn’t relish the idea of sleeping just a couple feet away from strange men, we’ve made it a point to experience everything we can on this trip. That night, we were joined by Becca and we wandered around the city until dark, eating dinner at an upscale pub called Tiles. Though it wasn’t authentic Scottish cuisine (which saddened me to no end), it was still delicious.
 The next day we were joined by a few more members of the group, and spent the day wandering around the city. Edinburgh (pronounced: edden-BRO) is perhaps one of the most beautiful cities on earth. It’s multi-layered, winding, stone-stacked and rain-stained, an organic marriage of the modern and the ancient.

On a single street, you’ll pass dozens of tourist shops, touting all things plaid, diners serving haggis, neeps, and tatties—neeps and tatties are mashed turnips and potatoes; haggis is ground sheep intestines and oatmeal—all of which are surprisingly delicious, and various hole-in-the-wall cafes and bistros. We wandered into St. Mary’s, praying in the beautiful, vaulted cathedral after mass. That night (on recommendation from Professor Duerden, our Shakespeare professor), a small, brave group of us went to the Beltane Fire Festival up on Calton Hill. It was a huge pagan celebration heralding the arrival of summer. There was a procession of people playing drums and painted like demons, dancing with fire up the ruins on a hill, and lots and lots of men and women painted entirely red, dancing around bonfires, wearing nothing but tiny loincloths. It was an interesting experience observing such an ancient ritual. It was so packed we could barely move, but, because it was freezing, we didn’t mind too much. It was definitely an interesting cultural experience!

The next morning, we visited Edinburgh Castle. It overlooks the city like a monolith, the temperature dropping significantly at the top. The castle had a chapel, a cemetery for the royal dogs, cannons, prisons and dungeons, and a great hall. Hannah assisted a Scottish man in a kilt with a demonstration in how to fold a kilt (he called her “UTAH”, because that’s what she said after he asked her where she was from, after answering “’MURICA.”). He also sang “Oklahoma!” to me, which was fantastic. It was amazing to think of everything that occurred at the castle and everyone who once lived there.
Later that day, we hiked up to Arthur’s Seat. Arthur’s Seat is a mini-mountain on the edge of Edinburgh, covered in the greenest of grass. Hiking to the top, you really feel like you are in the presence of the ancients. You can see the sea from the top. It was extremely windy and, as we balanced at the peak, we were constantly reminded of our own mortality. We were able to view the entire city.

That night, a group of us went on a haunted tour of the city. Our tour guide was imperiously tall, was clad in a black cloak, and creeped around like a graceful velociraptor. He also whipped Nathan with a black whip (don’t worry, he didn’t draw blood). After leading us around, tell us stories of historical tortures and hangings, he took us four stories underground into the vaults, where he told us true ghost stories of recent sightings that happened in the catacombs. Pat’s young daughters were perhaps the only people who weren’t scared.

This morning, we took a train and then a coach (bus) to the coastal, college town of St. Andrews (pronounced: suh-TAN-drews), where we met the essayist Chris Arthur. After walking to an ancient cemetery, we hiked to the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. It was wild and melancholy, covered in rocks, shells, barnacles, and white and green sea glass. As we sat upon the shore, he lectured us on the process of writing an essay and signed our books. The wind nipped our faces and fingertips, the gulls cried, and we felt fearless and unified with nature as we leapt like mountain goats from rock to rock, and climbed the giant formation called Rock and Spindle, which inspired Arthur to write an essay. As we combed the coast for precious fossils of sea life and death, I thought about man’s pointless efforts to improve on nature. How more perfect could the jagged ridges of a shell, the multi-hued stripes of a stone, the rhythmic, moon-driven tide, the lonely cry of a gull be? I was, in that moment, absolutely convinced that everything made by the finger of God should remain untouched by the finger of man. We rode the train home and I sat by a elderly Scottish man who carefully propped the pages of his newspaper away from me so he could be sure that I couldn’t read over his shoulder, which was fine with me because I was able to get caught up on my journal on the two-hour ride home. Later tonight, we went to see a play called “The Sash”, which was apparently a social commentary. I wouldn’t know because I fell asleep in the first three minutes and woke up to everyone applauding in the end. The only thing I can tell you about it is that the actors’ accents were so thick, you could hardly understand a word they were saying. Then, a few of us went and had ice cream at a place on the corner called After’s, which was sweet, satisfying, but made us freezing on the walk home.

Tomorrow, we have to wake up at eight to catch the coach to Loch Lomond. Edinburgh has been absolutely incredible and we’ve loved every minute of it.


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