Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah (1994)
"The boy first. His name was Yusuf, and he left his home suddenly during his twelfth year. He remembered it was the season of the drought, when every day was the same as the last. Unexpected flowers bloomed and died. Strange insects scuttled from under rocks and writhed to their deaths in the burning light. The sun made distant trees tremble in the air and made the houses shudder and heave for breath. Clouds of dust puffed up at every tramping footfall and a hard-edged stillness lay over the daylight hours. Precise moments like that came back of the season."
Yusuf grew up on the East African coast. The man who Yusuf has
called his uncle lets him travel with him on his next journey. What Yusuf doesn't know is that the man is a rich merchant and Yusuf is taken to settle his father debts. Yusuf starts working in a small shop somewhere by the sea, and then he gets to travel with the merchant to the interior regions to trade with the savages.
The story is set right before World War I or World War II, I'm guessing because of the increasing activity of German settlers. I'm also guessing that the story is set in Tanzania or Kenya because of the vague geographical clues. It is rich with details about the complex mix of people and culture in Africa, the traders are descendants of Arabic and Indian settlers and they bring with them Islam to the noble savages. The savages have their superstitions and traditions, and the book is full of stories about jinns and other strange creatures. And then there is the strange myths about the Europeans.
This book is great and beautiful. Some parts of it reminded me of A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul, but that is probably because it somewhat has the same setting. I recommend both. And I'm looking forward to read By the Sea by Gurnah.