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Analysis of Poem 'A Mother in a Refugee Camp' by Chinua Achebe

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)

Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)

Chinua Achebe and a Summary of 'A Mother in a Refugee Camp'

'A Mother in a Refugee Camp' is one of Chinua Achebe's best known poems. It focuses on the plight of a mother and her dead child, who she is about to bury, the son she will soon have to forget.

The poem has strong imagery, pathos (evoking sadness), and juxtaposes the awful reality of the refugee mother's situation with that of the ideal icon of the Madonna and Christ.

Essentially this idea of a desperate tragic loss transcends all—religion, philosophy, war, violence—it encapsulates universal humanity pared down to an essence: the emotional bond between mother and child.

  • The poem is free verse, with lines of differing length, no set rhyme scheme and a varied metrical rhythm.
  • Single stanza of 20 lines (although please note there are several versions of this poem online).

Chinua Achebe, a giant of African literature, better known for his pioneering novels, wrote this poem from direct experience of the civil war between Nigeria and Biafra which broke out in 1967 and ended in 1970.

In those three short years, millions of people were displaced as Biafra sought independence. Many tens of thousands perished. As is the case with almost all wars, innocent families suffered the most.

The poet himself, a supporter of the Biafran cause, was caught up in the mayhem and violence and was forced to move from the Nigerian state of Enugu to the then Biafran capital city Aba.

Achebe commented on the creative life of the writer forced to move to keep his family safe:

'I can write poetry, something short, intense more in keeping with my mood.'

He wrote elsewhere on:

'The fact of war merely puts the matter in sharper focus. It is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant—like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames.'

-The African Writer and the Biafran Cause, Political Paper, 1968, Morning Yet on Creation Day, p. 78.

  • The poem was first published in the book Beware, Soul Brother, 1971.
  • Chinua Achebe changed the form of the poem (structure) and certain phrases in lines for his book Christmas in Biafra And Other Poems (1972). In it, the poem is split into two stanzas and has a total of 21 lines instead of 20. The title was also changed to 'Refugee Mother and Child'.

The Theme of 'A Mother in a Refugee Camp'

The theme of 'A Mother in a Refugee Camp' is conflict, human suffering, love and sacrifice.

These themes are interwoven within a narrative based on observation, contrast and empathy.

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'A Mother in a Refugee Camp' by Chinua Achebe

No Madonna and Child could touch
Her tenderness for a son
She soon would have to forget. . . .
The air was heavy with odours of diarrhoea,
Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs
And dried-up bottoms waddling in laboured steps
Behind blown-empty bellies. Other mothers there
Had long ceased to care, but not this one:
She held a ghost-smile between her teeth,
And in her eyes the memory
Of a mother’s pride. . . . She had bathed him
And rubbed him down with bare palms.
She took from their bundle of possessions
A broken comb and combed
The rust-coloured hair left on his skull
And then—humming in her eyes—began carefully to part it.
In their former life this was perhaps
A little daily act of no consequence
Before his breakfast and school; now she did it
Like putting flowers on a tiny grave.

Line-by-Line Analysis of 'A Mother in a Refugee Camp'

Lines 1–3

The speaker contrasts the bond between mother and dead child with that of the Madonna and baby Jesus, suggesting that the refugee mother's tenderness is beyond even what the Christian Madonna could achieve.

This is a poignant introduction for the reader as it implies that the reality is more heartwrenching and genuine than a powerful representation of supreme love. Real life takes over from religious allegory.

And why would the mother soon have to forget her son? Is he going away on a journey? A final journey? In a refugee camp many things can happen to families—they become split up, children can be taken away or inadvertently lost.

The enjambment, when a line runs on into the next without punctuation, encourages the reader to move swiftly on and not to make a definite pause. Momentum gathers, then fades as the line becomes dots . . .

Lines 4–7

Now the reader gets an idea of the surroundings in this camp. Here are many people displaced from their homes; they've made perilous journies, left everything behind and now face uncertainty and illness in a place of relative safety.

But reality can't be ignored. Children get sick if they don't eat properly. They can also get diarrhoea (loose stools), which can be smelly and also very dangerous if it persists.

When you're having to leave your home and take to the road to survive you don't think too much about being clean. You're too busy just surviving by walking, running, hiding, escaping. In the countryside there are dangers from wild animals and stinging insects.

Washing becomes a low priority, or is simply impossible. The speaker here is directly observing people who perhaps have been on the road for days, weeks, without access to things we might take for granted, like running water, soap, hot water, a shower, basic foods.

Note the contrast of unwashed/washed-out in the same line. Washed-out means faded, thoroughly tired, pale.

And the bottoms are dried-up, which again reflects their pitiful state. They're waddling, not walking as they should, with healthy steps. To reinforce the idea of unhealthiness and desperation the children are waddling behind blown-empty bellies.

We've perhaps all seen on TV the images of children who are starving—they have bloated stomachs because they're not getting sufficient protein. It's a form of malnourishment often associated with wars in poorer countries.

The seventh line has a punctuated caesura (a break or pause in a line), where one clause ends and another new one starts.

The speaker is moving on, looking around this gathering of unfortunate mothers caught up in the chaos of conflict.

Lines 8–12

We're told that this particular mother, unlike some of the others, was still able to show her caring nature. Maybe the others were just too exhausted, or had already buried their dead children?

The language moves into slight surreality with ghost-smile held between her teeth which implies that her life has moved far away from normality and into the darker realms of survival. She only has a memory of mother's pride in her eyes, again a clue as to the state she is in.

But, in spite of all the hardships she's been through, despite undoubted physical weakness, she's managed to bathe her child with her own hands, a last ditch effort to clean up her child, a very moving act of devotion.

Lines 13–16

Next she takes out a comb from her bundle and combs through her son's remaining hair. The rust colour is another sign of malnutrition, given the name kwashiorkor (a word originating in Ghana, meaning 'the sickness the baby gets when the new baby comes').

The sorry picture develops as she parts the child's hair, her eyes full of something akin to humming—does the speaker hear this or imagine it?

Lines 17–20

Again, the contrasts are strong and clear. Refugee life versus normal life. Their former life is no more. War, terror, natural disaster—the reader isn't told the reason for her being in a refugee camp—all bring desperation and separation from familiar, healthy routines. What we call normal life.

Combing her son's hair was once a morning ritual, part of the daily preparation for school. But this is the last time she'll comb his hair. This is readiness for the grave, the little soul prepared for a different existence.

Poetic Devices in 'A Mother in a Refugee Camp'

Poetic devices can help deepen or enrich a poem by sound (phonetic) or understanding (metaphor, simile).

Alliteration

When two or more words close together start with similar sounding consonant:

Behind blown-empty bellies

Assonance

Similar sounding vowels close together:

between her teeth

Caesura

A break in a line, often half-way, either naturally or by punctuation:

Had long ceased to care, but not this one

Internal Rhyme

Line to line rhyme or half-rhyme:

odours/washed/waddling/bottoms/blown-empty/not/ghost/

Simile

When one thing is compared to another, using the word like or as:

Like putting flowers on a tiny grave.

Sources

  • Irele, F. Abiola. “Chinua Achebe as Poet.” Transition, no. 100, 2008, pp. 44–50. Accessed 12 Apr. 2022.
  • Chinua Achebe obituary | Chinua Achebe | The Guardian
  • Chinua Achebe | Poetry Foundation
  • Irele, F. Abiola. “Chinua Achebe as Poet.” Transition, no. 100, 2008, pp. 44–50. Accessed 14 Apr. 2022.

© 2022 Andrew Spacey

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