He has a politician’s quick smile and looks like he was born to wear a suit. He has a beautiful wife and picture-perfect children. His ancestor’s name is plastered on buildings all over his family’s hometown. He went to Brigham Young University. He has executive experience in both the private and public sectors. He’s a Mormon, and he’s running for president.
But his name is not Mitt Romney. It is Yeah Samaké. He’s the reformist mayor of Ouéléssébougou, a city of some 35,000 residents in the southwest corner of Mali. His anti-corruption policies have made that city a model of civil engagement, and this April Samaké expects to be elected president. If that happens, Yeah Samaké will be the first Mormon head of state in the world.
Mitt Romney’s emergence as the front-runner for the Republican nomination has been a mixed blessing for Mormons. It has led to unprecedented interest in the LDS Church and its members, but the dominant image of Romney—too wooden, too rich, too secretive about his faith, too white—has reinforced existing stereotypes about members of the faith. Some Mormons, including a few conservative ones, hope Romney is not elected, since a defeat would end the ceaseless questions about Mormon baptisms for the dead, Mormon tithing, Mormon racism, and so on.
Yeah Samaké, on the other hand, is a candidate nearly all Mormons can get behind. And many have. Utah’s conservative Republican governor, Gary Herbert, endorses Samaké in a video that appears on the candidate’s website, calling Samaké “a wonderful man and an inspired leader.” Next to his endorsement is one from Warner Woodworth, a professor at BYU’s Marriott School of Management who has openly questioned Romney’s dedication to the Mormon gospel because of his lack of professed care for the poor. Woodworth praises Samaké for promoting the kind of social entrepreneurship he himself has long championed; Samaké, he says, wants to “find ways to build economic self-reliance from the bottom up instead of the top down.”
Samaké’s appeal across the Mormon political spectrum stems in part from his ability to upend the stereotypes that Romney reinforces. He represents a church that is international and diverse, more nonwhite than white, and more poor than rich. He is also happier to publicly profess his faith than the GOP front-runner, who, as Frank Rich recently said, seems “closeted about his religion.”
But who is Yeah Samaké? How did he end up professing a faith that for years would not have allowed him—or any black man—to fully participate in its practices? And how did a Mormon end up running for president in a country that is more than 90 percent Muslim?
Landlocked in the deserts and plains of West Africa, Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. The average Malian makes $3.50 a day. The average Malian is illiterate. The average Malian won’t live past the age of 52.
Yeah Samaké is not the average Malian. The great African-American scholar and political activist W.E.B. Du Bois would describe him as a member of the “talented tenth”: The one man out of 10 who, through pluck, education, and direct engagement in social change, can rise out of abject poverty and become an international leader of his race.
Samaké has a real rags-to-riches story—and the rags are not metaphorical. Via Skype, Samaké recounted to me what has become a staple of his biographical stump speech. When he was a child—the eighth of 17—he and his brothers and sisters often awoke at night to hunger pains. “My mother would tie her handkerchief around our bellies to quiet our stomachs.”