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Chinua Achebe

Refugee Mother and Child

More challenging questions!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 18 January 2014
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The poem looks at the bitter hardship in Biafra during its civil war with Nigeria. Starvation and disease were rife, and children died with unconcerned regularity. The poet examines one case where a mother did care and continued to treat her child as if he would live.


Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi (Nigeria) in November 1930. He was the son of a teacher at a mission school.

He was schooled at the Government College in Umuahia and then at the University College in Ibadan where he received a Bachelors degree in 1953, having specialised in English, History and Theology.

He thereupon studied broadcasting with the BBC, after which he worked for the Voice of Nigeria. Later he was appointed research fellow at the University of Nigeria, where he eventually became a professor of English.

In 1961 Achebe married Christie Chinwe Okoli with whom he had four children.

In 1967 civil war broke out in Nigeria when the Catholic dominated province of Biafra attempted independence from the Moslem dominated central state. During those fateful years, Achebe worked as an ambassador for the Biafran government.

The war went badly for the Biafrans who suffered immensely, and starvation was rife. The poet's firsthand experience of the hardship and struggle inspired him to write "Refugee Mother and Child".

Achebe has written several novels and many poems. Indeed, he is considered to be one of the finest literary artists to have come out of Africa. He is a believer that all literature "should have a message, should have a purpose".

He retired in 1981 but in 1990 was paralysed from the waist down in a car accident.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother's tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget."
  • Explain the significance of the title of this poem "Refugee Mother and Child" in connection with the opening line. (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the rich imagery in these opening three lines. (4)

[Need help?]

"The air was heavy with odours
of diarrhoea of unwashed children."
  • Why does the poet go into such detail with this description? (4)

[Need help?]

"Unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in laboured
steps behind blown empty bellies."
  • Explain the paradox of the "unwashed children" with the "washed-out ribs" and "dried- up bottoms". (4)

[Need help?]

"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."
  • Why does the poet use "ghost" on two occasions in these lines? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why is the mother's pride "in her eyes" and not on her lips or in her voice? (4)

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"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."
  • Explain the significance of the poet's words "before his breakfast and school". (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the simile "now she did it like putting flowers on a tiny grave". (2)

[Need help?]


Chinua Achebe is a believer that all literature "should have a message, should have a purpose".
  • In view of this, what message and purpose exists in "Refugee Mother and Child"? (4)

[Need help?]

"Refugee Mother and Child" portrays people approaching death.
  • Explain fully whether you think the poet has been successful in this. In your answer you may like to include some of the following: the way in which the poet describes death, and how he presents his feelings about death. Consider too the poet's use language throughout the poem. (10)

[Need help?]

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