A Mother in a Refugee Camp Poem by Chinua Achebe Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English


Chinua Achebe’s poem “A Mother in a Refugee Camp” focuses on the pitiful situation of a mother with her dead child, whom she is about to bury and soon she will force herself to forget her dead son. This poem with brilliant imagery has compared the situation with that of the ideal icon of Madonna and Christ. The idea of desperate tragic loss prevails throughout the poem and through this the poet hopes to convey the emotional bond between a mother and her child.

About the poet

Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian author, is regarded as the father of modern African literature. One of his most influential novels “Things Fall Apart” has been translated into thousands of different languages. He usually explores the themes of colonialism, clash of cultures and the gradual loss of identity. Achebe played a crucial role in establishing the African literary tradition and gave a voice to the marginal communities. 


The poem is in the shape of an arch which can be viewed as a gravestone from the side. Perhaps this was intentional of the poet as it projects the death of a dying child, who was being put in a grave.

Summary and Analysis

Lines 1-4

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,


The speaker draws a parallel to compare the tie with the mother and the deceased child and the relationship amongst the Madonna and the infant Jesus, implying that the refugee mother’s compassion exceeds the devotion of the Christian Madonna. This is a moving beginning for the reader since it suggests that the truth is more heartbreaking and real than a potent illustration of ultimate love. Religious metaphor is replaced by reality. 


The speaker contrasts the link between mother and deceased child with that of the Madonna and baby Jesus, implying that the tenderness of the refugee mother exceeds that of the Christian Madonna. This makes for a moving opening for the reader since it suggests that reality is more agonizing and real than a potent illustration of ultimate love. The allegory of religion is replaced with real reality. Nothing of the purported representations of sensitivity, according to the poet, could even come close to matching the vulnerability and majesty of this moment of sadness and loss. The third sentence, which states that upon burying her kid, the mother will have to discover how to cope with life absent him and continue on, confirms the concept that the child she holds in her embrace is shortly going to pass away.

Lines 5-8

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:


The reader is able to better visualize the base’s environs. Several individuals have been uprooted from their residences, traveled dangerous distances, left belongings abandoned, and now reside at a location of some security where they must deal with ambiguity and disease. Actuality, however, cannot be denied. If youngsters fail to eat correctly, they become ill. They might additionally have diarrhea, and can be unpleasant and extremely harmful if it develops. The speaker is describing individuals who may have endured traveling for a period of time sans availability to basic necessities such as drinking soapy warm water for a bath, or basic nourishment.


The next four lines provide a genuinely horrible depiction of sick infants and defenseless individuals, detailing the refuge’s scents and the overall feeling of ill health, disease, and mortality that pervades it. They also explain how the children’s rib cage protrude from illnesses. The sight of kids gliding amid blown-empty tummies serves to emphasize the image of unhealthy habits and hopelessness. Moving on, the speaker scans the group of unlucky mothers trapped in the tumult of war.

Lines 9-12

She held a ghost-smile between her teeth,

And in her eyes the memory

Of a mother’s pride. . . . She had bathed him

And rubbed him down with bare palms.


Readers are informed of a component of in contrast with a few of the additional mothers, this one was still able to demonstrate her maternal qualities. Perhaps the remaining people were simply too worn out or had previously mourned their deceased children. Her ghostly beam, a grin which she is holding between her front teeth, suggests that her existence has become significantly more strange than usual and has descended into the deepest reaches of existence. She only remembers her mother being proud of her, which provides another indication of how fragile she is. But notwithstanding all the difficulties she has faced and her undeniable physiological frailty, she survived to wash her kid by holding her in a desperate attempt of tidying her up. This is an incredibly heartfelt act of dedication.


Achebe continues by describing why some moms have lost interest, are unable to handle the challenge of survival, and are simply waiting to die. This mother, who was previously stated, does not belong in the exact same group. She recalls her baby in all his splendor as she hugs him for the final time, a sliver of a grin still adorning the corners of her mouth. With laughing pupils, she organizes her son’s rust-colored hair, which is a symptom that he has kwashiorkor, a mineral deficiency. Her mother’s dignity had driven her to scrub him while she laid him down to sleep. Because of the timely manner when she commits this deed, the poet is prompted to consider how, in ordinary motherhood, doing this prior to their sons departing for class has little significance. But this maternal method has quite a sense of permanence to it than it is comparable to placing petals on a miniature tomb.

Lines 13-16

She took from their bundle of possessions

A broken comb and combed

The rust-coloured hair left on his skull

And then—humming in her eyes—began carefully to part it.


In the next lines, she retrieves a comb out of her purse and runs it over her son’s leftover hair. The red color, also known as kwashiorkor (a Ghanaian term that means “the illness the baby receives once the new baby comes”), is an additional symptom of starvation. The question arises whether the speaker hears this or is it in her head as she separates the kid’s hair as her eyes are full of what sounds like buzzing.


This part is full of empathy, and the usage of the first parallel to the Virgin Mary and Jesus helps to convey the misery of a mother who must watch as her baby dies right in her eyes. Even if the poet claims that the sweetness of the situation in actuality much surpasses what appears in all renditions of “Madonna and Child,” the certainty of mortality is clear in this contrast. 

Lines 17-20

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.


In the final lines, once more, the distinctions are sharp and distinct. Life as a refugee contrasted everyday life. Their prior existence has ended. The reader is not told why she is in a refugee camp, but all of these things convey despair and a break from comfortable, daily life, what the readers refer to as daily existence. Her son used to get his hair combed every day as a means of getting ready for school. But she won’t brush his hair again after this. This demonstrates the young soul’s preparation for death and a new destiny.


The people’s presence in the shelter for refugees is unjustified. By concentrating on a single mother who clutches her deceased kid, Achebe has effectively portrayed how profoundly the circumstances of those who must flee their dwellings to seek refuge alter. There may have been a conflict or another type of cosmic tragedy. The poem might also serve as a testimonial to a mother’s love, who, while knowing that her kid is dead, nonetheless holds him carefully and lovingly. She is still struggling with giving up and accepting that he’s no longer alive.