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Chinua Achebe’s Mother in a Refugee Camp, paints the pathetic picture of a mother holding her dying son in her hands for the last time, portraying both the inevitability of death and the pain of those whose loved ones have died yet they live on in a harsh light.
The poem starts with the poet comparing the scene of a mother holding her son in a refugee camp with the love and care which is usually depicted in all versions of Mary holding a ding Jesus in her arms. The poet state that none of the reputed depictions of tenderness could even come near the fragility and beauty of this scene of pathos and heartbreak. This foreshadows that the son in her arms is soon going to die, an idea which is confirmed by the third line which says that after laying her son beneath the earth, the mother would have to learn how to live life without him, and move on.
The next four lines describe the aura of disease, illness and death which surrounds the camp; describing the smells of the camp, and the ribs of the children protruding from sickness, painting a truly horrifying picture of sick infants and helpless people. Then Achebe goes on to say how other mothers no longer care, they can no longer cope with the struggle of surviving and now only await death. However this mother, who was mentioned earlier, do not fall into the same category. There is a remnant of a smile gracing her lips and she remembers her son in all his glory as she holds him for the last time. Her maternal pride had led her to clean him up before laying him to rest, and now she takes out a comb and with singing eyes, she arranges her son’s hair which is rust, a sign that he suffers from kwashiorkor; a protein deficiency. The relevant way in which she performs this act makes the poet reflect on how in normal day to day life, such an act holds no consequence to any mother; they do it before their sons leave for school. But the manner in which this mother does it has such an air of finality to it that it is akin to laying flowers on a tiny grave.
The poem is full of pathos and the agony of a mother who has to witness her child’s death in front of her eyes is made clear with the use of the initial comparison to the Holy mother Mary and Jesus. The finality of death is evident in this comparison even as the poet himself says that the tenderness of this scene in reality far outshines any that is depicted in all the versions of ‘Madonna and Child.’ Then the strong imagery which is used to describe the setting, the refugee camp, brings out the desolation surrounding the poem. Achebe evokes the sense of smell, sight and feeling to such an extent that tears spring to the reader’s eyes. The metaphor in the mother’s ‘humming eyes’ makes one sympathize with her plight.
No reason is given as to why the people are in a refugee camp. Perhaps there had been a war, or some sort of natural calamity, but Achebe has aptly described how such drastically the lives of those change who are forced to leave their home and take shelter, by focusing on one mother who is holding her dying child. The poem could also act as a testament to a mother’s love, who knows that the child is dead, yet continues to hold him with care and caution. She is not yet ready to let go and accept the fact that he is dead.
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