IGP Stories

In Search of Tunga: Prosperity, Almighty God, and Lives in Motion in a Malian Provincial Town – a review

Eva Coulibaly-Willis

22 January 2024

A text I have turned to recently is anthropologist André Chappatte’s recent book In Search of Tunga: Prosperity, Almighty God, and Lives in Motion in a Malian Provincial Town (2022), unpacking prosperity as it links to migration, mobility and social aspiration in Mali. These are important themes in our work as we attempt to tackle livelihood insecurity and environmental degradation, and steady the ship of uncertain global futures.

Several years of fieldwork have enabled Chappatte to patiently cultivate connections with individuals suspended-in-motion at a geographical, spiritual and economic crossroads. As a result, this eight-chapter monograph moves away from notions of the border-crossing that often dominate migration discourse, and instead delivers new African perspectives on mobility and prosperity.

Detailed ethnographic vignettes delve into the relationship between the Islamic practices and Mande values driving forward the transient residents of Bougouni, a bustling provincial town in the Sahel region of southwestern Mali. These are the dynamic layers through which locals shape their everyday pathways towards prosperity and open themselves up to the bounties of ‘God’s will’.

In Mali, tunga represents such a path, likened to the notions of aventure, ‘quest’ and ‘hustling’ which are propelling forward the itchy-footed, ever-mobile youth in places such as Senegal and the Gambia (Kleinman, 2019; Gaibazzi, 2015; Riccio, 2005). These are important values that have at last begun to receive scholarly attention within migration studies in recent years.

However, reminding us that over 70% of African migrations occur within the continent (pp.5), Chappatte brings this narrative away from the West African coastal hubs, to instead focus on the layered dynamics that shape mobility and prosperity in the towns of the Malian Sahel’s interior.

In Part I, “Navigating Street Life and Public Islam”, Chappatte takes an inquisitive anthropological approach rather than a deductive one, taking influence from Talal Asad’s analyses of Islam as a ‘discursive tradition’ (Asad, 1986). The first four chapters in this section explore the diverse practices and performances of everyday Muslims in Bougouni, understood as ‘lives in motion’ that travel, wind and often fold in on themselves in contradiction. Slowly navigating the sandy streets of the town on his bicycle, Chappatte details the key outdoor spaces of sociality for its residents – the compound, the street, and the male hangout spot known as the grin – as stages upon which the material and occult worlds interact. In a region carrying the legacy of the powerful Bambara Empire, steeped in occult religion that has continued to entwine itself with Islam since the 11th century, and experiencing neoliberal economic shifts in the aftermath of French occupation, urban spaces in southwestern Mali see a condensed mobile history played out both in the midday heat of Bougouni’s bustling centre, as well as behind the back doors of discreet bars in shadowy nights.

Chappatte’s depiction of tunga in Part II – “Motions and Ethics on the Earthly Path” – subverts the linear narratives of the Western colonial quest, by instead exploring other determinants shaping ‘adventure’ in one’s life course. Although concrete houses, new mobile phones, and Chinese scooters continue to signify material wealth, in Bougouni the pathway toward prosperity remains contingent upon existing in a wider state of perpetual motion; cultivation of one’s ‘earthly path’ takes place not only in the form of economic activity, but through prayer, the honouring of Bambara values, and engagement with occult forces. Amidst tensions in political, spiritual and economic powers, therefore, individuals’ daily actions, both public and private, become gestures towards ‘clearing the path’ to enable God, the ultimate determinant of the life course, to bless Bougouni Muslims with prosperity.

The book’s focus on just one provincial town is an attribute, rather than a limit to the often neglected stories of migration within West Africa, and such tales of every-day ‘life in motion’ should strengthen our approaches to prosperity in other localities. With the anthropologist in these dynamics often occupying a contested position, Chappatte takes an inquisitive stance and makes an effort to capture the varied, nuanced and conflicting desires of Muslims in Bougouni. Despite being rather old-school in form and methodology, In Search of Tunga is therefore an example of the continued value of ethnography in shaping our understandings of prosperity as a dynamic pathway, that is by no means fixed in place.

Chappatte’s book launch event is on Friday 9th February 2024. Find out more and register here.

Other references:

Asad, T., 1986. The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam. Georgetown University Press.

Gaibazzi, P., 2015. The quest for luck: fate, fortune, work and the unexpected among Gambian Soninke hustlers. Critical African Studies, 7(3), pp.227-242.

Kleinman, J., 2019. Adventure Capital: Migration and the Making of an African Hub in Paris. University of California Press.

Riccio, B., 2005. Talkin’about migration-some ethnographic notes on the ambivalent representation of migrants in contemporary Senegal. Stichproben. Wiener Zeitschrift für kritische Afrikastudien, 8(5), pp.99-118.

About the author

Eva Coulibaly-Willis is a Research Associate at the Institute for Global Prosperity and SHM Productions. With a background in medical anthropology, she works with the IGP’s Director, Professor Henrietta Moore, to re-centre people in projects spanning from decarbonisation to social welfare strategies and land use.

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