In the late 19th century, in pre-colonial coastal East Africa, 12-year-old Yusuf is taken by a merchant to pay off his father’s debts. After working as a store clerk for some years, his master takes him on a trading expedition into the rural interior of the region that lasts several months.
Yusuf is a strange and passive character that is hard to relate to. From the outset, things happen to him, while he doesn’t make anything happen; he is swept along for the ride, and he never seems to feel strongly one way or the other about it all. The only feature of his that truly stands out is his handsomeness, which attracts men and women alike, but doesn’t seem to serve any greater purpose. His character is supposedly an incarnation of the prophet Yusuf mentioned in the Quran, who corresponds to Joseph from the Book of Genesis, but I honestly don’t know enough about their stories to draw any parallels or inferences from this information. On the other hand, many of the characters around him are colourful and intriguing which makes Yusuf stand out even more. To me it seems that he is very much a symbol for his country Tanzania, which is on the verge of being colonized by Germany, as both of them are not in control of their fate at this moment in time and face an uncertain and probably grim future.
In general, the writing is very good, and there are many layers that are hidden under the superficially simple story, especially in regards to the meaning of freedom and independence. It is told in an emotionally detached way which combined with Yusuf’s passivity and opaqueness of character evokes a feeling of inevitability that hangs over the proceedings, but surprisingly this doesn’t lead to an unnecessarily bleak reading experience, even with the generally dark subject matter. Also, the ending is quite unpredictable which makes for another nice surprise. It took me some time to get into the story, but overall I would call it a rewarding and slightly unusual read.