In the 1960s, Ngugi wa Thiong'o produced a large volume of material, including stories, novels, plays, and a newspaper column. His first major play, The Black Hermit, was performed in 1962, which introduced Ngugi into the literary scene in East Africa. He published The River Between in 1965 following his novel Weep Not, Child, which was then followed by the critical success of A Grain of Wheat. This early trilogy set a firm foundation for his writing.
Ngugi’s The River Between focuses on the lost heritage of Eastern Africans through the characters of Waiyaki and his tribe. Ngugi was the first English-educated African writer to develop fiction portraying the Kikuyu view of the colonial war, the Mau Mau Emergency or Rebellion, which was a violent uprising by the Kikuyu people against British control. This event put the region in a state of emergency from 1952 to 1960.
The novel focuses on the conflict between Christian missionaries and the indigenous tribes. It also explores the long-lasting effects of colonialism and the consequences of struggling for independence.
In this work and others, Ngugi attempts to correct Western literature’s image of Africa, by offsetting the perspective of writers such as Joseph Conrad in his Heart of Darkness. Ngugi’s work occupies the category of contemporary African fiction that began with Amos Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drunkard and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Ngugi’s initial works were written in English, not the language of his own people. In the 1960s, he wove the stories and folk traditions of his culture and restated historical legends for a country that was less than a decade old. His later work is written in Gikuyu, the language of his tribe, as he seeks a more authentic literature and voice. His work represents the tenuous balance of cultures, languages, and nations that continues to be present in news headlines into the twenty-first century.