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REXBURG – The first time Modibo Samaké saw a college friend typing on a computer, he said he thought it was a miracle.

“I still laugh every time I type,” said Samaké. “To type with ten fingers and without looking at the keyboard; that is amazing! I used to use only one finger while typing with my eyes on each key.”

Modibo Samaké, a Brigham Young University-Idaho student from Ouélessébougou, Mali, West Africa, is an accounting major and currently a junior scheduled to graduate December 2014.

Samaké’s education began in Ouélessébougou, the same village where he was born. His father has only a second grade education, but being bilingual, speaking French and his native Bambara, he is considered well educated. Samaké’s mother never received an education, but Samaké credits her for pushing him to attend school.

“I almost dropped out of school,” said Samaké, “but my mom said no. If I didn’t go to school she would not talk to me, she wouldn’t buy anything for me, and that was her way to keep me in school.”

Mali has a public school system, but it is not well funded, especially in the more remote areas where teachers and supplies are scarce. Samaké attended a public primary school in his Ouélessébougou village, but there were no books. The only resource for learning came from the instructor writing on a chalkboard.

Although Samaké was urged by his parents to get an education, he had no understanding of why going to school was important. His mother could not have known what the school experience was about and did not understand the guidance needed. Samaké didn’t know he was supposed to “do” anything while in primary school, so most days he sat quietly, never answering questions and participating very little.

In the sixth grade Samaké observed something incredible. His classmates were answering questions, hard questions. They were giving the teacher information that was beyond anything he had ever heard. He wanted to know how they were doing it.

“We have books,” a classmate said.

“Most of the students had their older brothers helping them at home; none of my siblings were around,” said Samaké. “When I went to a close classmate’s home he had a book that could help him a lot for our class.”

It was then that Samaké knew he must have a book too, and an awakening began inside him for knowledge. This stirring changed him, and became the true beginning of his education.

Samaké began to push himself. His sixth grade teacher was so surprised by his progress that he insisted Samaké had cheated on an exam. To make him prove he had not cheated, the teacher gave him an oral examination and, of course, he passed.

It would be three years before Samaké received his first book. He was in the ninth grade when a wealthy friend gave him a math book and because of it, math became his favorite subject.

Samaké was raised in the Islamic faith. His family consists of his mother and father, two older brothers and an older sister. For Mali, a Muslim and polygamist country, Samaké’s family was considered very small. His grandfather, for example, had 17 children with four wives. Samaké is not sure why his father never took another wife.

“Maybe he was afraid of my mother?” Samaké said with a grin.

Born in 1986, Samaké knows his own birthday, but has no real idea of the ages of his parents or siblings, except for one brother who is 10 years older than he is.

“We don’t celebrate birthdays,” Samaké said. “It is not part of our tradition. But I try to do something for older poor people on my birthday. This is how I celebrate.”

When Samaké’s birthday is approaching, he sets aside a portion of his wages and gives it to an elderly person in need.

Samaké currently works for the grounds crew at BYU-Idaho and lives on very little. A major part of every paycheck is sent to his parents in Ouélessébougou. Parents are supported by their children in Mali. Samaké says this is the way it has always been.

Many of the traditions practiced in Mali are fading as access to media becomes available in small villages like Ouélessébougou. Parents, a decade ago, arranged the marriages of their children. Although Samaké’s older brother entered into an arranged marriage, he had second thoughts about doing so.

“The world is a different place now,” Samaké said to his brother. “You can choose for yourself.”

It was a very risky and bold statement coming from a younger brother, Samaké explained, because it is inappropriate for youth to counsel anyone older.

Samaké’s sister left home when she was a very small child, probably about 4 years old, according to Samaké. One of Samaké’s cousins refused to take part in an arranged marriage, unless she could “have” her little cousin, Samaké’s sister.

This request was not an unusual one, and Samaké’s parents agreed to allow his cousin to adopt his sister for the purpose of having a helper in the home. This cousin’s obligation was to teach Samaké’s sister how to work hard and care for a household. When she became old enough to marry, Samaké’s cousin and her husband were completely responsible for the wedding and all costs involved.

Samaké’s older brothers and their families currently live with his parents in Ouélessébougou; again, to follow tradition. Imagine a small parcel of land with a room on each corner, and rooms along the sides, if needed. The separate rooms of the home are made of mud brick, and the roofs are thick thatched grass.

There is a central open area for meals and gathering. Meals are eaten together with men on one side of the center court area and women on the other. Each group shares food from a single large plate. Of course, that is, when there is food available.

Samaké knows what it means to be hungry. Being the tenth poorest country in Africa, Mali is among those nations affected by the drought that has killed millions in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan over the last two decades. But Mali has received much less attention. Samaké often went to bed hungry, the way many children across Africa still do.

Samaké’s uncle, Yeah Samaké, current Mayor of Ouélessébougou, and 2013 Mali presidential candidate, remembers his mother tying a bandana around his waist at night to shrink it, making him feel as if he had something in his stomach.

“If there is no rain, there is no food,” Modibo Samaké said.

If there is no rain, there is also a grass shortage, which means more than just a lack of feed for the cattle. It also means a shortage of supply for the thatched roofs.

In addition to famine, fires are greatly feared in the remote villages of Mali. Fire is used to cook the meals, but with the dry thatched roofs, a fire can take hold quickly.

When Samaké was a small boy, a woman’s screaming woke him in the middle of the night. The woman’s roof was on fire, and in her panic, she picked up what she thought was her newborn baby, wrapped in blankets. When she reached the fresh air outside, she discovered that her baby was not in the bundle of blankets at all. As she watched the burning roof cave in, she realized her baby was inside.

Mali’s primary and middle schools are for children ages seven through 16. Secondary schools are located in Bamako, the capitol of Mali. Sometimes the government does not have seats for all the graduated pupils from the area middle schools, so some students are sent to private professional schools at the expense of the government. An instructor from a professional school in Bamako suggested that Samaké apply to one of these government-funded private schools specializing in accounting. Samaké applied, and was accepted.

Arrangements were made for Samaké to move in with his mother’s brother, Facko Bagayoko, to attend the professional school in Bamako. It would be the loneliest time in Samaké’s life. He had never been away from his parents and he barely had any knowledge of the world. He was 14 years old and 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) from home. He had no money for traveling and he missed his parents immensely.

“I cried mostly at night in my room. I would dream about home almost every night during my first month in Bamako. It was my first time being away from my parents, for three months. Now I have been in the United States for five years, but that three months was the longest ever in my life,” Samaké said.

For the first few weeks there was no room in his uncle’s home, because of a boarder, so Samaké slept outside on the ground. After the boarder left, Samaké gained what Americans might describe as a broom closet, for his personal space. It was important to keep the door to his room closed at night to keep the insects out, but the temperature inside was sweltering and he never did sleep well.

A bright spot appeared two years later when Samaké was rewarded by the government for his good grades. He received enough from a cash scholarship to purchase a bicycle. He planned to use his bike for more than transportation to and from school; he was going to visit his home in Ouélessébougou.

80 kilometers by car takes about an hour, but Samaké was not about to let distance stop him from going home by bicycle. He didn’t want to go alone, however, so he asked his best friend, and fellow bicycler, Adama Sacko, to make the journey with him. But distance was not the only problem the boys faced.

The subtropical climate of Bamako in November makes the average temperature of 95 degrees feel much hotter. In addition, November 2002 was Ramadan, the month-long Islamic fast.

During Ramadan Muslims abstain from eating food or drinking water during the day, from sunrise to sunset. It is a time to focus their attention on God, to fast for Him, and practice selflessness.

In spite of the odds against them, Samaké and Sacko set out. They were full of hope and Samaké was fueled by the joy of returning home.

“A man offered us a ride after we rode back to the nearest town to get some gas for him,” said Samaké.

After returning with the fuel, the look on Sacko’s face told Samaké he hoped to accept the offer for a ride, but Samaké said no to the offer.

Soon Sacko began to lose his fervor with the heat and hunger claiming his energy, but they were too far now to turn back.

“I felt sad that Adama followed my decision. But at the same time, I was happy that he accepted to finish the commitment we made together,” said Samaké.

Finally Sacko was too weak to go on. Samaké told him to just hold on and to do what he could to stay upright. For the last half of the trip Samaké doubled up the handlebars of the two bikes together in one of his hands. Side-by-side, Samaké managed to pedal, control and steer both bikes in tandem, for 40 kilometers.

“I was determined to bring Adama home safely … I had faith in God that He would give me the strength to get home. I was not fasting for myself or for anything, but for Heavenly Father,” said Samaké.

Samaké later made a second trip home on his bicycle by himself, but without fasting.

Samaké did not want to be a burden to his Uncle Facko Bagayoko. Seeing there was barely enough food for Bagayoko’s children, Samaké chose to go without food.

“I would not think about breakfast; dinner was mostly the left overs from the family’s lunch, and was not enough,” Samaké said. “During the day, I would spot some mangoes in a tree on a city street and wait. At night, I would go back and get a lot of the mangoes and save them in my room. It was too expensive for me to buy food; but whenever I did it was like a holiday.”

In 2007 Samaké enrolled in college courses in Bamako. His friend, Adama Sacko, had a good paying job, and loaned Samaké the tuition money.

This same year Samaké began working for his uncle, Yeah Samaké, at Mali Rising Foundation (MRF). MRF focuses to improve educational opportunities for rural communities in Mali. To date MRF has built 13 middle schools and an elementary school, including a new middle school in Ouélessébougou.

Modibo Samaké was paid the equivalent of about $60 per month working as a guide for Americans who arrived in Mali to help serve with MRF. He escorted them to and from work sites and generally ran any errand needed. He continued to send his earnings to his parents in Ouélessébougou.

After working for the MRF for a time, a deep trust developed between Modibo Samaké and his uncle, Yeah Samaké. It wasn’t long before Modibo Samaké was doing the books for the foundation, as well as handling and keeping safe all of the cash.

Yeah Samaké said of Modibo Samaké that he is most impressed with “Modibo’s high sense of service, his disarming patience and his graceful heart. He has inspired me on a number of occasions. I find myself wishing I had his temper sometimes. Modibo knows his purpose and he pursues it diligently, at his own pace … I could go on for a while, but I will conclude by saying that I completely trust Modibo.”

In 2008 Samaké met three women from Colorado serving with MRF, Gretchen Winston, Nancy Bradbury and Alane McMurtrey. All three women are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).

“These women became my mothers,” Samaké said, “along with Alane’s sister in law, Melissa Ray Leonardson.”

In September 2008 Samaké arrived in Colorado through the combined efforts of Winston, Bradbury and McMurtrey. They arranged for Samaké to learn English, and Samaké made his home with the Bradburys.

The Bradburys also accommodated the LDS missionaries in their home. Even with the language barrier, Modibo became very close friends with each set of missionaries. He didn’t understand why the missionaries were living there or why they always wore nametags.

“I didn’t know why they wore the little black tags,” Samaké said. “I thought they were part of their clothing style or meant some sort of status.”

Modibo Samaké’s uncle, Yeah Samaké, was one of the first Muslim, Mali citizens, to be baptized a member of the LDS church, while attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. But the baptism was not without controversy. The LDS church is cautious about allowing baptisms for anyone from a Muslim nation, for purposes of his or her own safety when returning to their homeland.

“It was through some friends in New York that I was allowed to join the church on Sept. 14, 2000. [My friends] convinced the mission president and the stake president that I would be safe in Mali,” said Yeah Samaké.

Learning English helped Modibo Samaké understand much more about the LDS lifestyles of his new American families. It was after some long talks with Alane McMurtrey’s husband, Lamont McMurtrey, that Samaké decided to be baptized.

“He was very patient with me,” said Modibo of Lamont McMurtrey. “The missionaries wanted to baptize me, but I told them no. I wanted Lamont to baptize me.”

Samaké was baptized on Jan. 11, 2009.

Through arrangements made by Yeah Samaké, and with the help of Winston, Bradbury, Leonardson, and the McMurtreys, Modibo Samaké has been able to live in Rexburg and attend BYU-Idaho. He knows his sponsorship will end shortly. He is not sure how he will finance his remaining BYU-Idaho education, or how he will pay for graduate school, but he is hopeful. The determination he has carried all his life remains today.

“If God provided any opportunities, I needed to make good use of them,” said Samaké.

“I never doubt that the Lord is watching over me. I just keep praying. I tell myself ‘you just need to wait for it.’”

It has been five years since Samaké has held his mother in his arms or embraced his father. He has no vision of when he will have the opportunity to go home again, but he knows the time will come. He often reminds himself of his own growth.

“You don’t know how much you have progressed in your life until you go back home,” said Samaké.

For more information about MRF, please visit http://malirisingfdn.org/.

To contribute to an education fund for Modibo Samaké, contact Bridgette Patterson at bridgettepatterson@gmail.com.

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