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18 Oct

Refugee Mother and Child by Chinua Achebe

Refugee Mother and Child

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

would 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.



Comprehension Questions

Section A

A1. Who should forget whom and why?

The refugee mother should forget her son because he is going to die very soon. She is helpless and forgetting is the only thing she can do. The death of the son is imminent.

A2. What is the air heavy with?

The air is heavy with the unpleasant smell of diarrhoea of unwashed children. An aura of disease, poverty and death hangs about the atmosphere in the refugee camp.

A3. Describe the appearance of the children of the camp?

The children in the refugee camp lack life and vitality. With washed-out ribs and dried-up bottoms the children struggle even to move. With blown empty bellies and deformed bodies, the children present a sorry picture.

A4. What do all the mothers do?

All the mothers in the refugee camp seem to have lost all hope. They have stopped caring for their dying children. Because of their helplessness, they wait mechanically for the imminent death of their children.

A5. Why does the refugee mother hold a ghost smile between her teeth?

The refugee mother in the poem still believes that her son can be revived. Perhaps, like Mother Mary in Pieta, she is hoping for the resurrection of her son. Her smile appears ghostly and unreal because of her intense poverty and deprivation. Ghost smile also suggests the impending death of the son who will soon become a ghost.

A6. What is the combing of the child’s hair by his mother compared to?

The combing of the child’s hair by his mother is compared to putting flowers on a tiny grave. Due to the impending death of the son, the act of combing hair assumes a sacred, ritualistic significance. Also, combing the hair of a dying child is as futile as putting flowers on a grave.


Copyright © Manu Mangattu, Assistant Professor, Department of English, St Goege's College Aruvithura

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