Chinua Achebe – Refugee Mother and Child – Poetry Lecture and Analysis by Dr. Andrew Barker


This poem was written in the
late 60s, early 70s. It is about Chinua Achebe witnessing
a refugee camp in Biafra, where a war was going on. Achebe looks over the refugee camp
and sees this. It’s a very affecting piece, this. First reading of
‘Refugee Mother and Child’ by Chinua Achebe. No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s 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 struggling in laboured
steps behind blown empty bellies. Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s pride as she combed the rust-coloured
hair left on his skull and then – singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life this must have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers on a tiny grave. This is a wonderful poem, this,
with some wonderful moments in it. I always feel a bit guilty when I’m teaching it,
about the horrific nature of the subject matter. And me drawing attention to the way
the emotions are created in us due to the way Achebe
has written the poem, as if the form and the
poetic talent of the writer is somehow, or is creating the
emotions in this, and not just the horrific nature of the real incident
that he is actually writing about. But here’s the poem. No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness for a son she soon would have to forget. A Madonna and child is a religious painting
of Jesus Christ and Mary, his mother. And it’s a generic painting. Basically during the time of the Renaissance,
even after actually, when the Church controlled most of the
funds allotted to the world’s best painters. They were sort of obligated to paint
the same things over and over again. So all the great Renaissance painters,
they tend to paint religious paintings – Christ on the cross, lots of them do Last Suppers,
and they all do one Madonna and child, one picture of Jesus Christ and his mother,
the infant Christ and his mother. And, there’s only so much you can actually do
with a picture of a child and a mother. Well, there’s not actually,
there’s loads of things you can do with it, but if the child is supposed to be
the deity incarnate that you either believe in,
or that you’re being paid to show, you’ve got to have the mother’s face
looking at the child in awe, love, tenderness. You couldn’t have a Madonna and child
with Mary scowling down at the child as, ‘what an ugly baby, you are’. What Achebe is saying here is that
the best painters the world has ever seen painting a picture of a
mother looking at her child, all of the best painters in the world,
none of them have ever been able to capture the look of tenderness that he sees
on this woman in a refugee camp. No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness for a son she soon would have to forget. And we must ask ourselves why. Why is it that no picture that’s
ever been painted by the best painters the world has ever seen
could compare to this actual look of real, genuine, human tenderness that
Achebe is looking at on this mother who will
soon have to forget her child. Why will this mother
soon have to forget her son? And I’ll come back to that question in a minute,
because as we read the poem through the first time, we haven’t been given enough information yet
to understand the answer to that question; or to give the answer to that question. That’s the first stanza of the poem. The second stanza contains some
very difficult sentences to say. Not particularly difficult to understand, I think. But deliberately difficult to say. The first sentence is this. 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. Let’s look at what the sentence means first. So, ‘the air was heavy with odours’. The air stank.
And it stank of diarrhoea. It stank of the
‘diarrhoea of unwashed children’, dirty children,
‘with washed-out ribs’. ‘Washed-out ribs’ is a great piece of writing,
and a horrific image. It’s the idea- I mean we have
all seen these pictures now, time and time again,
and too many times. These are pictures of children starving to death,
whereby their stomachs become inflated, you can see their ribs
through their skins. That’s what Achebe is looking at here. 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. ‘Blown empty bellies’ being, the
stomachs become inflated with air in these times of intense malnutrition. And the way that Achebe
presents this sentence to us, it’s very difficult to read. It’s as if he’s giving us
too much information. We’ve heard enough after
the first two or three clauses, and he doesn’t allow us a comma to stop,
and he keeps forcing the extra information on us. 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. And we’re denied that final comma
to keep our breath in as we read this. And at the end, we’re…
that’s a horrific thing to see. One could even perhaps say the difficulty of
reading this statement is analogous to the difficulty of movement
of the child. He continues, most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; So, presumably as his eye roams
over the situation that he sees, most of the mothers are-
have long ceased to care. They’ve presumably ceased to care because
they’re too tired, too starving, too flat-out exhausted. Most mothers there had long ceased to care
is not an accusation against the mothers. It’s a championing of this
individual mother that he notices. Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; What this line in the poem or
this part of the poem always reminds me of is in the scene in Schindler’s List
with the brown coat. There’s a saying that you can’t mourn everyone,
you can only mourn someone. We need to be able to personify
the one person who, through that person, we can understand
the suffering of a great many people. In Schindler’s List we see, I think
they’re cleaning out the Warsaw, cleaning out- they’re destroying the Warsaw ghettos,
and Schindler notices a girl in a brown coat. The film is of course in black and white. And four, five, or six seconds, the camera
follows his gaze as he notices this girl. And then an hour and a half,
probably two hours later in the film, he sees some- some
Jewish people being burnt. And the Nazis just got the
Jews in the wheelbarrow, just upend the wheelbarrow, and you see the little girl there
with the brown coat on. And it’s a brilliant way of
focusing your attention on the one person, through which the suffering
of all the others is focused. Now, here, as Achebe looks over the
Biafran refugee camp, his eyes focus on one mother. Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s pride as she combed the rust-coloured
hair left on his skull and then – singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… So the mother that Achebe concentrates on,
‘she held a ghost smile between her teeth’. ‘Ghost’ is mentioned twice here. We get the ‘ghost smile between her teeth’,
and the ‘ghost of a mother’s pride’. She held a ghost smile between her teeth.’ A ghost smile-
it could be the ghost of a smile, I tend to hear this as-
or I tend to see this as a ghost being something that has died. A ghost is the spirit of
something which has died, and the mother held the ghost smile
between her teeth. She was trying to smile but
the living smile has died and has gone. I mean, almost comically
with this one. I tend to imagine it as like
a Tom and Jerry cartoon as well. You know when someone dies in a
Tom and Jerry cartoon, and you see their spirit
ascending from the body. And I’ve always imagined this idea of,
‘she held a ghost smile between her teeth’, as if the smile is dead,
and the ghost is ascending from her face and she’s trying to hold it between her teeth,
as long as it’s still there, it gives her some sense of hope. I don’t know if Achebe intends that,
or how I’m supposed to see it. But the image I get from that,
the look on her face as I see that, it works quite well
with the poem for me. She held a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s pride. So the ghost of a mother’s pride,
it’s there in her eyes. I mean, it’s as if the mother’s pride
is not in her face anymore, and she hasn’t got it anymore,
but it’s still there in her eyes, ‘the ghost of a mother’s pride’,
it’s dead but she’s still got it; it has not left her yet. And in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s pride
as she combed the rust-coloured hair left on his skull So, what Achebe sees is the mother
combing her dying or dead son’s hair with this- with a comb,
‘singing in her eyes’. Singing, we nearly always
see it as positive. We never hear somebody saying,
he was singing- I mean, some people have got good voices,
and some people have got bad voices; there are good songs,
and there are bad songs. But whenever we hear singing
rendered symbolically, and of course it has to be
rendered symbolically here, because you can’t literally
be singing in your eyes. What Achebe wants to put across here
is that there is still some life in her eyes, singing in her eyes. So, there she is. You can imagine this look on the mother’s face here
as she parts her son’s hair with the comb. And it’s the comb, and the
parting of the hair with the comb, that acts, in this poem,
in the same way as the brown, red-brown coat in
Schindler’s list does. It draws our attention, or it focuses
the poet’s attention on this one instance. We then get this final sentence, which I think…
is really wonderful piece of poetic writing, this. In another life this must have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers on a tiny grave. So first off, the thing which she did,
like ‘putting flowers on a tiny grave’. Now she ‘did it like
putting flowers on a tiny grave’. What is the ‘it’
that she’s doing? And the ‘it’ is
combing her son’s hair. She used to do this just before
she sent her son to school. Now ‘she did it like
putting flowers on a tiny grave’. I think this is such a good line because,
literally, it works really well. Never mind the figurative beauty of it. If you can imagine putting
flowers on a tiny grave, and that is the same motion that you can imagine
the mother combing the child’s hair with. Obviously, she’s combing his hair as a way of
saying goodbye to him because he’s dead. Achebe tells us, in another life this must have been
a little daily act of no consequence before his breakfast and school. Now, what does he mean by
‘in another life’? Because there’s three possibilities for that. The first one, ‘in another life’,
that would be reincarnation, wouldn’t it? The Buddhist belief in reincarnation,
that our souls are born again. So, if she were to be born again,
or had been born again in another life, this would be the sort of thing,
this combing of the hair before the boy goes off to school,
this would be this daily act of no consequence’ That’s what she would do. In another life,
a reincarnated life. Another interpretation of that line is,
in another life, in a world properly run, where what has caused this situation
to happen didn’t happen. In a properly-run world. So it’s almost, in another world,
this would be a daily act of no consequence. And that’s plausible. But the one I think is most plausible
and the one I like best is, in a world before this event happened,
because refugee mothers aren’t born refugee mothers. Or, they become refugees;
mothers become refugees by whatever flood, war, whatever disaster,
man-made or otherwise, that have caused them to
have to flee and seek refuge. So this refugee mother,
wasn’t a refugee mother before the disaster of Biafra occurred. And the life that she led
before that disaster was so different from the life that she leads now. It might as well have been another life. It happened to somebody else. And that’s the, for me the most
powerful reading of that line. So the opening line we have in this, No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness for a son she soon would have to forget. And we can ask,
‘why does this mother have to forget the child?’ And one of the questions, or sorry,
one of the answers would be that the child is dead. Well, just because the child is dead
doesn’t necessarily mean you have to forget them. I think the reason she has to forget the child is that
it’s simply too painful to remember the child. No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness for a son she soon would have to forget. Because it’s simply too painful to remember. So I’ll read this poem through one more time,
but then I’ll give you another version of it, with a few lines changed. This is Achebe’s most famous poem,
it’s one that’s often anthologised. I think perhaps when he wrote it
as a young man, he didn’t realize what a famous poem
it was going to become. And he rewrites it in a later anthology,
tweaking two or three moments of it. And I’ll read this poem through
as we know it, and as it is most commonly understood, and then briefly examine the changes
that Achebe makes for the later version of the poem. So this is the final read through
of the first version of Chinua Achebe’s poem,
‘Refugee Mother and Child’. No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s 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 struggling in laboured
steps behind blown empty bellies. Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s pride as she combed the rust-coloured
hair left on his skull and then – singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life this must have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers on a tiny grave. So, this is the
rewritten version of the poem. 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 motherís 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 thenóhumming in her eyesóbegan 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. So, of the changes there,
we are given more attention to the way the mother
cleans the child before combing his hair. We are told that she is humming in her eyes,
where previously she had been singing. And this is important because
we can hum in a much more melancholy way than
we can be singing. And, the ambiguity in the final line
about what ‘in another life’ could mean, is cleared up for us. Achebe tells us,
‘in a former life’. Although I prefer the ambiguity
of the different meanings, presumably Achebe doesn’t
and he wants us to know specifically that this woman he sees
in the refugee camp before she was there,
she was not a refugee mother. Refugee mothers aren’t born
as refugee mothers, and that particular confusion
is cleared for us, presumably because Achebe himself
doesn’t want that confusion. But, I think the most telling difference
that Achebe makes in his slight rewriting of the poem,
is in the title. The poem that is most often anthologised
is called, ‘Refugee Mother and Child’. The rewritten version, the one I’ve just read you
is called, ‘A Mother in a Refugee Camp’. Now, the reason he does this,
I think, is because to call someone a ‘refugee mother’ means she is
a refugee before she is a mother. If you call the poem
‘Mother in a Refugee Camp’, she is a mother who happens
to be in a refugee camp. And the second title,
to me is much more respectful of the woman who is in
those circumstances. She is a mother in a refugee camp,
she isn’t a refugee mother with a child. That was the Mycroft Online Lecture for Chinua Achebe’s ‘Refugee Mother and Child’,
as it is often known, or the poem rewritten as
‘A Mother in a Refugee Camp’. I am Dr. Andrew Barker. Thank you.

17 Comments

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *