Wednesday, July 13, 2011
(Mother and Child by Henry Moore, 1898-1996,
English sculptor and artist)
In 1967, the south-eastern part of Nigeria tried to break away from the federal government to form the Republic of Biafra. In the brutal civil war that followed, the Nigerian government imposed a blockade around Biafra, and many hundreds of thousands of civilians died of starvation and disease. The secession ended three years later, in 1970, when Nigeria retook control over the rebel area.
Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian poet and novelist, wrote this poem during the hostilities.
MOTHER IN A REFUGEE CAMP
No Madonna and Child could touch
Her tenderness for a son
She soon would have to forget. . . .
The air was heavy with odors of diarrhea,
Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs
And dried-up bottoms waddling in labored steps
Behind blown-empty bellies. Other mothers there
Had long ceased to care, but not this one:
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.
She took from their bundle of possessions
A broken comb and combed
The rust-colored hair left on his skull
And then — humming in her eyes — began carefully to part it.
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.
~ Chinua Achebe, born 1930, Nigerian poet, novelist, and critic