Refugee mother and her child by Chinua Achebe
Explain what the poem is about and how the poet conveys the emotions he feels.
The poem is about Achebe’s encounter with a mother and child in a refugee camp. This mother was different from the other mothers as she still cherished and loved her son. The other mothers had already stopped caring for their children as survival was not the most important thing and there wasn’t any hope of survival for their children anyway.
In line 9:
“Most mothers there had long ceased to care”
The poet’s tone was varied, in the first stanza he used long, soft vowels such as the vowel ‘o’ and words such as ‘tenderness’. In line 4, Achebe chose to used the word ‘odour’ instead of the word ‘smell’ or ‘stench’ because it sounded softer and more rounded. The softness continued until the beginning of line 5 where Achebe used hard-sounding words such as ‘diarrhoea’ and ‘blown’. The fact that the child will die is hinted repeatedly. From line 7 to line 14 of the second stanza, he seemed to be admiring the mother’s love for her child in even those circumstances. At the end, his tone was sad and regretful.
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In the last three lines:
“…like putting flowers on a tiny grave.”
There was alliteration in line 5 of the second stanza:
“behind blown empty bellies”
The poet used the work “ghost” as a metaphor in lines 8 and 9 of the second stanza. In “ghost smile”, he meant the softening of the mother’s expression as she looked at her son. There was repetition of “ghost” and in “ghost of a mother’s pride”, it represented what the mother used to feel and here there was only the tiniest left of it. The last 2 lines were a smilie, he’s saying that her combing her son’s hair is like a final goodbye because she would probably never get to do it again.
In the first line, “Madonna and Child”, this is the scene when Christ was taken from the cross and placed on Mary’s knees. Achebe is saying that even this scene could not have been more touching than of the refugee mother and her child.
In line 3:
“for a son she soon would have to forget.”
Here he means that after the boy dies, the mother will have to concentrate on survival for herself, forcing her to forget her son. This will not be able to mourn her child.
In line 4:
“The air was heavy with odours…”
The air was thick with the stench. The air was so dense that it seemed it had a weight and was more than just gas.
In lines 7 and 8:
“Struggling in laboured steps…”
Even walking is difficult for them. Walking is hard work.
Achebe doesn’t know the mother’s name, so he refers to her as “she” and “her”.
“Rust-coloured” is the colour of a dark-haired person’s hair when he or she has an inadequate diet. The hair signals that the child is incredibly unhealthy and on the verge of dying.
In line 11:
“…hair left on his skull…”
The child is in such poor health that his hair has fallen out. Achebe used the work “skull” because it showed how poorly the boy was and because it represented death.
In line 12:
“- Singing in her eyes - ”
The hyphens surrounding this phrase outlined its significance. This was probably because the mother remembers singing to him, when they were happy.
From line 15:
“act of no consequence…”
Combing her son’s hair would usually be something a mother wouldn’t think twice about. They were probably quite well off before they were in this situation.
The punctuation Achebe used were little. At the end of the first verse he put a period. This is because he was finalizing a statement. At the end of line 5 of the second stanza, there’s another period. This is because he’d finished describing about the surroundings and was moving onto the mother. In line 7, there was a semi-colon, which indicates a pause. There is another one in line 16. In line 13 there are three periods together. This is usually used to signify that something will eventually continue. At the end of the poem he put another period. This is because he is ending the poem and also because he is once again finalizing something. Since the child is dying, death is final, so the period was suitable.
In lines 13 to 16, Achebe introduced the possibility that the mother and child were probably quite well off before they were in this situation. However, their lives had changed and it was no longer that comfortable lifestyle.
I thought the poem was sad. It showed how disasters could change the feelings and lives of normal people like you and me. It was an eye-opening poem, and it made me realise that if I weren’t living this lifestyle that boy may well have been anyone I know or me.