How Niankoro Yeah led Ouelessebougou out of poverty

Malian mayor and presidential candidate, Niankoro Yeah, speaks about the importance of leadership in crisis. Illustration by Ivette Pimentel.

The former mayor of Ouelessebougou, Mali, and 2013 Malian presidential candidate, Niankoro Yeah came to Utah Valley University on Oct. 6 to give a speech about his experience with leadership in his country. 

“Ouelessebougou is a rural commune (territory) in the Koulikoro region. It is located approximately 50 miles from the capital city of Bamako,” wrote the Ouelessebougou alliance. “The region covers approximately 1,118 square kilometers and includes the town of Ouelessebougou and 44 villages.”

According to the Ouelessebougou alliance “The name Ouelessebougou is a combination of two Bamanankan words. ‘Ouelesse’ is the first name of the man who founded the area, Ouelesse Samake. ‘Bougou’ means ‘hamlet’ or small settlement or village. It is pronounced ‘Wuh-less-say-boo-goo.’”

“Mali is going through a tremendous amount of trouble,” noted Yeah in the beginning of his speech.  

“Mali’s precarious humanitarian situation has been aggravated by political instability, mass displacement and latent food insecurity,” according to the Ouelessebougou Alliance. “High population growth and climate change pose major risks. Recurring droughts plague the country with food shortages causing illness and death. Conflict in northern Mali has displaced more than 560,000 people countrywide — triple the amount from 2019.”

Yeah claims that, “Leadership makes everything bearable for everyone [and] integrity is needed in leadership, especially during a crisis.” 

“The challenges of the last decade have caused great hardship on the people of Mali. Widespread poverty persists, especially in the rural areas like Ouelessebougou,” according to the Ouelessebougou Alliance. “Nearly 48% of Malians live below the extreme poverty line. Now the COVID-19 pandemic has added to the strain on the nation’s poor healthcare system, education and economy.”

“Ouelessebougou Alliance works in partnership with local villagers to transform the quality of life in the Ouelessebougou region of Mali, West Africa by delivering sustainable programs in health and education.” According to GuideStar. “The Alliance also works to cultivate globally-minded citizens in Utah by providing opportunities for students and other community members to learn about Malian culture, history, and position in the global community.”

Yeah shared his story during his speech, “I was living here in Utah, I went to BYU, long line of poverty, my father’s goal was to break the cycle of poverty by sending all [seventeen] children to school which was really valuable back then.” Yeah claimed his father was willing to risk going hungry to make sure that his children were able to get an education because his “family will not know the darkness of illiteracy.” 

Reflecting on his time in Utah, Yeah noted, “The freedoms that we have here are taken for granted so I decided to leave to make a big impact back home [in Ouelessebougou] because truly America doesn’t need me.” 

He said that he wanted to become the mayor of Ouelessebougou “I didn’t see any progress, my country needed me.” 

“To lead is to serve, leadership is nothing but service,” said Yeah. “Together we can improve our conditions … We see the flag in Mali as a sign of leadership.” He intends to use what he has learned about leadership to pull his country out of poverty by building more schools and getting access to running water by using his community’s tax money.

To learn more about Yeah’s journey, see BYU’s Youtube.

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