illustrated portrait of Igbo Nigerian author Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe

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Student Question

Does the poem "Refugee Mother and Child" by Chinua Achebe enhance the dignity of motherhood?

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To say that Chinua Achebe's poem "Refugee Mother and Child" touches the heart with love and compassion and enhances the dignity of motherhood is true up to a point but presents an incomplete and sentimental picture of the poem's effect. The first image in the poem is that of a "Madonna and Child," perhaps in a Renaissance painting by Raphael or some other great artist. The refugee mother surpasses even the Virgin Mary in her tenderness, but every other detail of the scene invites horror rather than admiration.

The stench of diarrhea, the "washed-out ribs," and the "blown empty bellies" strip human beings of their dignity, as the mother herself appears to be bereft of her child or to know that this tragedy awaits her soon. The end of the poem mirrors the confusion as well as the misery and squalor of her situation. It is not clear whether the child is dead or alive, but the repetition of the word "ghost" in the third stanza suggests that both mother and child are near death. The depiction of motherhood here is certainly more tragic and intense than the images of fine art or comfortable normality with which it is contrasted. However, it is difficult to say that this enhances the mother's dignity, as she and her child are left to die in the midst of filth and sickness.

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