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A Mother in a Refugee Camp

Chinua Achebe
A Mother In A Refugee Camp

No Madonna and Child could touch

Her tenderness for a son
She soon would have to forget. . . .
The air was heavy with odors of diarrhea,
Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs
And dried-up bottoms waddling in labored 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-colored 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.
Chinua Achebe

• He was a Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic

• Interested in African politics
• He wrote the influential novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ which sold 12
million copies and is the most widely read book in modern
African literature.

• Social Justice
• Love
• Pride
• Innocence
• Death
Structure and Form

• Written in free verse. There is no rhyme scheme.

• There is only one stanza – Achebe uses ellipsis to progress his
• The simplicity of the structure and language allows you to
focus solely on the content – Achebe wanted to make us aware
of, and to think about, the life refugees had to live.
Portrays a compassionate
mother. The child is unnamed,
making the child universal.
Another alternative
interpretation can be
biblical, symbolising Mary
and Jesus. Mary watched her
son die horrifically like
mothers are doing in refugee
The stanza is shorter in comparison with the other stanzas. camps.
This signifies that even though her son’s life is short and
there is little time left, she won’t give up or lose hope. Foreshadowing makes us
This short positive stanza indicates that there is very little aware that inevitably the
hope or goodness in the lives of the refugees – most of child will die and its mother
their life is like the struggle depicted in the second stanza. will have to forget.

Physical description of the dying

Unlike all the other mothers who children, creates a sense of emptiness
have given up hope and accepted and desperation – life in the refugee
the fact that their children will camps is a bitter ‘struggle’ for survival,
die and they can not save them, which most lose.
the mother in the poem still has
that little glimmer of hope. This Contrasting references to time. In
makes both the mother and the the first part, there is ‘soon’ which
poem itself, even more tragic. gives the sense that time is running
out. The second reference to time is
‘long’ which describes the situation
– the suffering has been going on
for a long time. Most mothers had
given up with this a long time ago
and had just resigned from
motherhood and hope.
Rust suggests The mother is faking her smile due to the
decay. overwhelming sadness she has to face in
order to keep her mind off the harsh truth.

We can see how The word ‘ghost’ is repeated in order to

much the mother emphasise the point the child is dying.
appreciates every Connotation of death. The “ghost of a
single little detail mother’s pride” relates to the memory of
about her child happiness she had with her son before they
because she wants were in the camp and before her son got
to absorb as much The combing signifies her mother still not sick.
of her child as she giving up complete hope and showing
can. happiness that her child is ALIVE. Contrast The word “skull” also emphasises death.
to the poem as a whole because of the Shows how unhealthy and how sick the child
slight happiness present – makes the scene is.
even more touching and tragic.

The word “flowers” paints a

positive image. This contrasts very
sharply with the “grave” in the
next line.

The adjective ‘tiny’ The poem ends with the word

emphasises how this is In these final lines the poet “grave”. Again, the word carries
children dying, which compares the mother combing her connotations of death. Ends the
goes against the natural child’s hair with the act of putting poem on a morbid note to drive
belief that parents flowers on a child’s grave. Both are home the message that refugees
should outlive their acts of love and show how the need help/support.
children. mother is caring for her child.
Language - senses
Throughout the poem, Achebe uses a variety of sensory descriptions to describe the
conditions and suffering that they have to face on a daily basis.

Examples are:
‘unwashed children’
‘eyes’ Achebe combines touch and smell by using the
‘blown empty bellies’ technique synesthesia. An example of this is “the
‘washed out’ air was heavy with “odours”, as “heavy” relates to
‘dried up’ touch and “odours” relates to smell. Another
example is “singing in her eyes”. This is effective
as it emphasis the conditions that they have to
face at the camp.