illustrated portrait of Igbo Nigerian author Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe

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Student Question

What two details suggest the setting of "Refugee Mother and Child" by Chinua Achebe?

Quick answer:

Two details that suggest that the setting of the poem "Refugee Mother and Child" by Achebe is a refugee camp are the following

air was heavy with odours

of diarrhoea of unwashed children


mothers there had long ceased

to care.

Expert Answers

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The idea that the refugee mother and child in the poem are in a refugee camp emerges from the lines saying that the

air was heavy with odours

of diarrhoea of unwashed children.

The heavy odours and the reference to many unwashed children implies that a large group of refugees are clustered altogether in one spot. The detail

mothers there had long ceased

to care

suggests that the refugee camp is not new: the mother and child in question might be new arrivals, but some arrived earlier and have seemingly become depressed from their time in the camp. This reinforces the idea of a fixed refugee camp rather than just a group of refugees who have gathered together briefly.

The detail of "blown empty bellies" suggests that the mothers and children in the camp are starving, a sad image of hopelessness that makes the one mother's act of combing the little hair left on her son's head all the more poignant.

It is worth nothing that Achebe universalizes that refugee camp by not providing any specific details about its place. Although the images might conjure photos we have seen from Africa or the Indian sub-continent or anywhere else, part of the sadness of the poem is that this horror could be occurring anywhere that war or famine has disrupted life and forced people to flee. The poem shows, however, that even in seemingly hopeless moments, love can continue.

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