Thursday, March 8, 2012

Yeah Samake: The Mormon presidential candidate I believe in.

Why do I believe in him? Because I heard him speak at my school last night, in an overflowing auditorium. Chairs gathered in from every nearby classroom, and still people standing, eager in the hall, back, and sides. (I have never seen the room like that.) I believe in him because his words were powerful, hopeful, direct, honest, and sincere. He exuded sincerity.

He was introduced by Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies, and my Gendering Mormonism professor. They had crossed paths a few weeks back in DC, and now they were here, in California. When it was Yeah's turn to speak, he shared a video. He shared this video:

As I watched it I felt alive. And close to crying. And one million other things that I haven't felt in a long time. It was clear that he is someone who believes in good things, not because he wants to sound like he believes in good things, but because he really does. Among the good things that he (and I) believe in are honesty, education, and equality. (I will come back to the education part in half a moment.) He also believes that given tools to help themselves, people can rise out of poverty. He believes that corruption can be rooted out of even the most corrupt places. He believes these things because he has lived them. 

I so admired his father's commitment to learning, to education. I so admired that same father's sacrifice and insistence that all 18 of his children go to school. People asked him why he did it, and "Wouldn't they be hungry?" His father answered, every time, "My family will go hungry, but they will not know the darkness of illiteracy." (Which answer is without a doubt the most moving part of the video for me.) Then afterwards, Yeah told us that he did know hunger, and about the many nights as a child that he could not sleep, because his stomach was so empty. He would cry in the night, and when his mother woke from those little boy cries, she would simply wrap fabric around him tighter, to hold his stomach in. That was all she could do.

He continued to talk, and I continued to listen, wishing I could write every word down. I tried. And while I am a fast typer, I am not that fast, so my white and black page is full of fragments. Beautiful, hopeful fragments. I give some to you:
It's not like the people are dishonest. It's like they're deprived and will do anything to bring bread to their table. | When you care for people, you are cared for. | I'm here not because I am the best citizen of Mali. | It is not because I want to make money, but because I want to give back. | [Why people in a Muslim region would vote for him for mayor, 86%] It is not about your religion. It is not about where you live. It is about what you can do to help [them] go through life. | I know that I will not misuse a dollar of the tax money. | We cannot rely on the central government. We cannot rely on foreign aid….We must rely on our selves first. | We did not send the army as used to be done. | People believed in the message I shared with them. | No one has ever told them where the money went before. | [He took something from his religion:] The Elders Quorum of the city of Ouelessebougou. | Every city would send a trusted man or trusted woman. | It has to be done by us. | ...the nicest high school. Even better, we got running water,…, solar panel field. We suddenly have a quality of living superior to most of the people in my country. | Once your mind is stretched it never goes back. I have lived in America… I have seen free speech. | Never in the history of my country has a mayor run for president. More importantly, never in the history of my country has a Christian run for president. | Victory is not winning the election. I'm not in this for the power… I'm in it because I know that if we provide opportunities to people, they can rise themselves out of poverty. | Again, I tell you: Mali is not a poor country. Mali is a country with poor leadership. 
I believe in him because he answered difficult questions with grace. One woman feared for his physical safety, acknowledging that people who have power do not easily give it up. Another was not convinced that he would be able to wipe out corruption on a national scale, despite his great success as mayor. She was from Africa, like him, and made her way to America and BYU, like him. Yeah responded that it is easy when you look at it as as cities: "Mali is just 703 cities." My friend Chuck asked him about Mormonism and race issues. Someone else asked him a more general question about the role his religion plays in his campaign, if it is made an issue. He answered that, "it is dangerous in Mali to talk about religion in politics," but added that they "can teach America something." Not the danger part. The focusing on what unites, part: "We should not in any case let our religion divide us. Contrary to what you hear, 1% of Christians live in peace with 95% Muslims... Of course my faith has inspired me, [but] this is not a religious matter. This is not what we are thinking about in Mali. We are thinking, 'Who can bring three meals?' 'Who can bring us access to health care?' 'Who can bring us to education?'" I thought about our own GOP, and how different the debates would be, the conversations. 

I believe in Yeah Samake because of his commitment to education and to miracles: "My life is a miracle. I really believe that many miracles have happened into my life. One of two kids will die [in Mali]  before the age of five. 450 deaths out of 1000 births. It is really a miracle to survive. I was sent to school where the literacy rate was below 11%. My father made a drastic decision to send all [18] of his children..." His father was poor, and his father, making education another miracle. One that opened all of the windows and all of the doors. One that reminded me that the doors and windows are not always open.

I believe in him because I heard his conversion story. Perhaps rather simply, it involved him feeling the spirit for the first time. Not at Mormon church, which he went to, but at a football game. The U vs. BYU. I have to assume that it was at the latter, because it opened with a prayer. He found that fact strange. (It is strange.) Yet, something remarkable happened. As he listened to the prayer, he began to cry. And cry. And cry. It no longer mattered that men from his country do not cry: he was so profoundly stirred, having "felt for the first time the spirit."

This prayer opened a floodgate—not only of tears, but of questions. He asked so many questions. Ultimately he asked to join the church. They had him take 6 discussions. As he was ready, they told him he was not able to join the church. "They didn't tell me why. I was quite hurt. I went to Colorado. I thought if the people in Utah won't do it, the people in Colorado will. I took 6 more discussions. They wouldn't do it. They told me it was because they would kill me," meaning the people back home. The Muslims. He said, "They won't kill me. They are my family. My people. My village. They know me." Still, they would not baptize him. 

Sometime later he was in New York. A bishop there had met his family. Yeah told him he wanted to take the discussions. The man was excited. He took 6 more discussions. And then the same problem, but with one difference: the bishop fought for him and called the Mission President. Yeah was baptized sometime in 2000, exactly one day before he flew home. He thought, "They're all going to join. We're all going to be happy Mormons in Mali. Mali Mormons." Great laughter from the audience, and then a pause, "It didn't quite work out this way."

He continued with his testimony. "It has brought the light out of me.. I did not know Jesus before…It has changed the way I see myself. It has changed the way I look at others. Service has been something I then try to do….Love is service and time. Jesus has served you and myself…That knowledge is phenomenal. It guides my life. I love to serve, because I know when you serve, you will be served."

I also believe in Yeah because he believes in himself, not in a pompous way, but in a positive way, a way recognizing that there is a difference to be made and that he can make it. Near the very end of the evening, he pronounced, "I strongly believe that you are staring at the next president of Mali." His confidence waxes strong because he has "a story to tell the people." A true story. "I have a story of a child growing up in poverty and making something out of his life. I have a story of someone who has turned a city from bottom… I have a story of what education can do… I have a message for the Mali people. I have a message of hope….The media is interested in my message. I don't pay the media. They are interested because it is new…[because] that candidate has a compelling story for Mali." The majority of his "contenders have already served and failed. They have failed Mali."

At the very end of the evening, he said, "Power corrupts. I pray every day that I will be protected, that I will stay away from corruption. That is exactly why I want to serve one term…Really I want to do five years of presidency, stretch the mind of the people because I know they won't go back. They will demand good leadership once they have tasted it. I'm serious that I want to do five years…I'm doing this…for the rest of Africa. Good principled leadership. It works. Not only for the people, but for the leader themselves. People are scared that it may not work for them, because they don't know any other way. Show them that you can let go of power and live a happy life, an even happier life. No one has taken power and just let go of it." His brother-in-law told him that they will make him serve two terms. He still said no. Only one.

It was interesting to hear Yeah speak the very day that my facebook newsfeed was bombarded with pleas to, "Stop Kony," an apparently evil man from, in, or around Uganda. While I think that social justice (and regular justice) is important, I don't know if pouring money into the Invisible Children (or other such organizations) is the best way to stop bad things. My husband lived in Uganda. He saw aid wasted and donated clothes/supplies sold at markets, rather than making their way into the hands of those who needed them most. Because of corruption it became wealthy Ugandans purchasing items bestowed by even wealthier Americans. Many people he met expected him to give them money or fix things for them, simply because he was American. He didn't give money, but he did plant a garden, build several buildings, and install a simple water/pipe system in the small place where he was staying. 

I have not lived in Africa like my husband. I have not even been there. But, I agree with my husband and with Yeah Samake that "if we provide opportunities to people, they can rise themselves out of poverty." I see this as somewhat similar to the old adage: If you teach a man to fish..., while at the same time recognizing that there is occasionally the one time need to actually give fish. (If you look in the Bible, Christ followed both methods, sometimes teaching how and where to fish, other times offering not only fishes, but loaves.) Furthermore, I believe that it is better to invest in or for something rather than against something. How much money has the United States spent in efforts to go after single persons? Sometimes (read: all the time) I think the money could be better spent elsewhere. Thus, if any of you dear readers have heart urges to give to Africa, might I strongly suggest that you donate to Yeah's campaign? It will not be wasted, but will go to an honest man who hates corruption, and has successfully rooted it out of one city in Mali, and wants to root it out of the rest. 


naomi said...

Great post.

Elisse Newey said...

Well put. Thanks friend.

tallia said...

Yeah used to live in jon's house when he was going to byu. I have only met him a few times but he is great. great post!

cole said...

Rachel, I love your interest and passion in him and his campaign/mission. He's an incredible man. I've been working with him for several months now and spent a week in Mali working on the campaign (including that video) and everything that you've said and felt is 100% true. He's a special man and you're right on that supporting something positive that's flying under the radar is going to do a lot more than posting cool looking flyers around town to capture a bad guy on the run… Yeah can change his country. You can see it in the eyes of the people he meets with over there—they have so much hope in him. it really is incredible. Keep spreading the news! We still have a ways to go to get him elected. But posts like this really help :)

Natalie Percival said...

Thank you. I like the idea of supporting for something as opposed to supporting against something, too. I like being behind something positive.

Lora said...

This was a wonderful, hopeful article. Thank you for sharing. It brightened my mind which was feeling a little gloomy.

As a side note, do you remember Adam Winston from Boston? His family is Yeah's Colorado family. Sweet, wonderful people.

Rachel Hunt said...

Tallia, it sounds like Jon has had some cool roommates. Bronson. Yeah. Etc.

Cole, that video is truly amazing. I have been interested in his story since I first heard about him, but hearing him speak cemented it. I left with so much hope.

Natalie, me too. So much.

Lora, I definitely remember him, and didn't know that. That adds a whole new dimension.

Anonymous said...

Great post Rachel. I'm going to hear him speak tonight.

Courtney Toiaivao