Chinua Achebe was very well-known for his work on post-colonialism; his upbringing in southeastern Nigeria made his childhood a firsthand experience into the world of colonialism and has fuelled such works as Things Fall Apart, the most well-known work of African literature today. Most don’t even associate the name Achebe with his poetry, and yet poems such as Refugee Mother and Child prove that the incredible talent Achebe possessed with the written word did not end with novels alone. Chinua Achebe’s Rufugee Mother and Child, can be read in full here.
Refugee Mother and Child Analysis
No Madonna and Child could touch
The air was heavy with odours
Refugee Mother and Child is written in a very free-form kind of style. The phrasing and grammar of each line make it feel as though this work is only a work of poetry because of the spacing — you would write, for instance, that “No Madonna and Child could touch that picture of a mother’s tenderness for a son she would soon have to forget;” It is a complete sentence. And yet, it flows extremely well as a poem. The language itself is what is poetic. Use of the Madonna and Child imagery — referencing the popular imagery of the Virgin Mary holding her Son in her arms — immediately contrasts a beautiful image with a horrible one. To say that the beautiful image cannot touch the terrible one can be telling of a number of things. Perhaps it means that religion is of no comfort, or perhaps it means that the most beautiful image in the world cannot compare to a mother’s love.
There is an interesting spacing aspect of this poem that it presented in this verse — the beginning of the next verse is placed here instead, in the form of “the air was heavy with odours.” Alone, this is barely a complete thought, though it does fill in a few imagery-based details on our setting.
of diarrhoea of unwashed children
steps behind blown empty bellies. Most
The continuation of the aforementioned line fills in the setting of them poem incredibly well. While the first verse of the poem established a truly sad atmosphere in “a son she soon would have to forget,” the entirety of this verse is dedicated to filling in an atmosphere with reality. This is the world this mother lives in — “blown empty bellies” — “washed-out ribs” — “dried-up bottoms” — “struggling in laboured steps.” The imagery is powerful. Each line brings on a new horror for the reader to contemplate, a horror that, for this mother, and for each child, is the reality in its most real form.
mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
pride as she combed the rust-coloured
hair left on his skull and then –
The narrator goes on to tell us that for most mothers, the harsh reality hardens them; the act of childbirth is followed by the certain knowledge of coming death and horror, and so they simply stop caring for the lives of their children… they simply can’t afford to. This is not true, we are told, for the mother who forms our central character. Ghostly imagery is used here — the ghost of a smile, the ghost of her pride — to show that the mother is still heavily affected by the need to not care, but still fights through for her son.
Stanza 4 and 5
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life this
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.
The entirety of Refugee Mother and Child come together in these last two verses, and there are a great many ways to interpret it, all of them very sad in nature. This verse highlights the harsh reality of a great many things that are taken for granted very often in the world; how something as simple as combing the hair of a young son can be a daily ritual in one country, and be equally as symbolic as decorating a grave in another. The analogy is frighteningly powerful and creates an image that is simply impossible to not contemplate deeply… which is undoubtedly the intention of the wording.
Historical Context to Refugee Mother and Child
Chinua Achebe was born to the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria in 1930, putting him in Nigeria at the exact right time for British colonialism to begin dictating the lives of the Igbo in the form of the Royal Niger Company. A number of events that took place during his colonial education were later recorded in his works; there are a number of parallels, for instance, between things he observed as a child and events that take place in Things Fall Apart, his first novel.
Achebe’s style was often to write about what he saw in the world around him, and given the strength of the language, it is more than likely that this is the case for Refugee Mother and Child. It was written during the Nigerian Civil War, an unfortunate aftermath of the colonialism that had influenced the area. During this time, Achebe mostly wrote poetry, finding it an easier task to manage during the intense period of war.
It is difficult to imagine it — a young Chinua Achebe walking around his hometown, breathing in foul air, and watching the hearts of mothers harden towards their children. Colonialism, poverty, and war had all taken immense tolls on the Nigerian people, and they were in suffering. Achebe’s poem here serves as a written analysis of that time period, a reflection based on what he saw that draws its strength from the imagery and language by painting a picture of words for the reader, one that brings suffering to life in a way that not many poems do.
A significant part of the strength of this poem is the realization of how real it is. So many poems rely on metaphor and distant imagery that when a poem this grounded in reality is read, it almost feels like a shock — how many famous poems talk about the diarrhetic odors of dying children with such blunt language? But this is its strength — the realization, the certain knowledge just by reading the poem, that what Refugee Mother and Child describes is very, very real.