When reading Weep Not, Child (as well as much of Ngugi’s other early work), it is essential to understand the novel’s historical context: the Mau Mau revolt that eventually led to Kenya’s independence.
Kenya was made a British protectorate in 1895. The region’s rich soil and natural resources were appealing to the expanding British empire, and many colonists went there hoping to become rich (although, as the novel points out, individuals often had personal motivations as well). However, a fierce native defense required the British to violently annex the areas they wanted. Even as early as 1925, a British government commission noted that the native Africans had been treated cruelly.
Nevertheless, the British retained their holdings and established laws that cemented the supremacy of the European farmers and their government. Very few Africans were allowed to own land, whereas a relatively small number of British settlers held most of the country's land. Land ownership is especially important in the culture of the Gikuyu, the largest tribe in Kenya. Naturally, therefore, the British land policy caused great frustration among the Gikuyu and other tribes. They became even more upset when their young men were drafted to fight in the First and Second World Wars, wars that they considered unrelated to their own concerns. When their service went unrewarded, tensions grew even greater.
Starting in 1944, Kenyan activists began attempts to create a political party that would advance their cause. This movement resulted in the creation of the Kenyan African Study Union, which eventually changed its name to the Kenya African Union (KAU) in 1946. The KAU was headed by Jomo Kenyatta, who is mentioned frequently in Weep Not, Child. However, there was much dissension between Africans about how the rebellion should be pursued, and what their goals should be after independence. A secret society known as the Mau Mau eventually emerged as a competitor to the KAU. The Mau Mau’s infrastructure relied on secrecy and oaths, which were taken very seriously in tribal culture and hence added a layer of legitimacy to the group. Starting in 1952, the Mau Mau began to commit violent acts towards both Europeans and Africans who were considered British collaborators.
In 1952, the British government enacted a State of Emergency, which allowed for martial law. This resulted in the arrest of Jomo Kenyatta and many other rebel leaders. Many innocent people were also affected by the Emergency; for instance, young men were frequently detained simply on suspicion of being involved with the Mau Mau. The detainees were tortured and sent to work camps, although the full extent of these abuses was not confirmed until relatively recently. In 2011, The Times of London leaked documents revealing that hundreds of innocent people were imprisoned and tortured during the British efforts to suppress the revolt. Although the British had mostly suppressed the Mau Mau by 1956, the State of Emergency lasted until 1960. This is why the early period of the rebellion is often referred to as the 1952-60 Emergency. In 1960, the British initiated a transition period that would eventually lead to full Kenyan independence in 1962.