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
Refugee Mother and Child is written in a very free-form kind of style. The phrasing and grammar of each line makes 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.
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 at 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 reality in its most real form.
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
The entirety of Refugee Mother and Child comes 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.
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 odours 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.
The Use of Imagery in Refugee Mother and Child by Chinua Achebe
- Length: 847 words (2.4 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
Refugee Mother and Child is a poem that seems to be written to arouse
response from the reader. The pitiful image of a mother holding the
corpse of her son is not only sourcing empathy from the reader but
also helps the reader reflect on their own fortunate lives. In fact,
Chinua Achebe is a leading writer for African causes, especially for
the injustices in the world.
The first stanza seems to be written as an introduction to the
following stanza. The poet begins by allowing the reader to visualize
“Picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon would have to forget.”
This immediately conveys the theme of ‘death of a child’ and also
helps set the ‘sorrowful’ mood of the poem. The short introduction
allows the reader to settle them down and focus more on the tragic
scene, thus maximizing the response from the reader.
Following the ‘theme’ and ‘mood’ set by the first stanza, the second
stanza described the living environment of the “Refugee Mother and
Child” as –
“The air was heavy with odours
of diarrhoea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in laboured
steps behind blown empty bellies”
The filthy image of the environment that the mother and child lived in
is projected through negative connotation. For example, the words
‘odours’ and ‘diarrhoea’ suggests the presence of diseases and
sicknesses. This allows the reader to imagine a smelly and filthy
place crammed with ill people. The reference to illness, which seems
to be a link with the theme of ‘death’, foreshadows the tragic story
of the mother and her dead son although it has not been clearly stated
that her son is dead.
Furthermore, the grotesque image of the setting is strongly reinforced
by the mentioning of “unwashed children with washed out ribs…” Chinua
uses the children as a clear symbol of innocence and the unfortunate,
as the children has been given birth in places where vital resources
such as water and food are lacking. This will naturally allow the
reader to reflect on their own fortunate lives and raise awareness of
these unfortunate children living in famines. The words ‘laboured
steps’ also suggests child labour, linking to real cases in lesser
economically countries such as Africa, China and Algeria.
As the second stanza continues, the constant reference to death is
evident when the poet describes the –
“ghost smile between” the mother’s “teeth and in her eyes the ghost of
a mother’s pride.”
The careful choice of the technique, personification, enables the
reader to visualize the emptiness of the mother’s smile and spirit, by
comparing the nouns ‘smile’ and ‘eyes’ with ‘ghost’, which
communicates the idea of death.
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The word ‘ghost’ also suggests an
unpeaceful death of the child as ghost is thought to be unpeaceful
spirits of a dead person. Through this imagery the reader is supposed
to feel empathy towards the deep sorrow that the mother is
experiencing, and the suggested unpeaceful death of the child.
The death of the child is finally revealed when the poet described the
tragic scene of the mother combing “the rust coloured hair left on his
skull.” The word ‘rust’ communicated the idea of rotting and decaying
material towards the reader and also the mentioning of the death of
the child through the word ‘skull’.
The whole purpose of the poem is pulled together at the end of the
poem where the poet contrast the tragic scene of the mother combing
the hair of her dead child with “another life” where the combing
“would have been a little daily act of no consequences
before” the child’s “breakfast and school.”
In the other life, as a sharp contrast, the child’s life is without
worries. The two images brought about by the mentioning of “breakfast”
suggesting that this child has food to eat at breakfast and also
“school” where the child is receiving education. In the other life, as
a sharp contrast, the child’s life is without worries. The word
“school” also strongly suggests happiness in the child’s life. The
strong contrast successfully reminded the reader to reflect on their
own fortunate lives and also be empathic to those whose lives are less
Chinua Achebe used imagery effectively throughout the poem to set a
dull and heavy mood, which helps the reader to feel emphatic to
“refugee mother and child”. Imagery is also used to allow the reader
to visualize the sorrow of the mother through the projected image of
the ghostly ‘smile’ and ‘eyes’ on the mother’s facial expressions.
This dull and somber imagery is then conclusively contrasted with the
image of another child; a child whose life is more fortunate then the
refugee child. This effective use of contrasting the two images
successfully arouses empathy in readers and also allows the reader to
reflect on their own fortunate lives.