Nelson Mandela read Chinua Achebe when he was in prison and reportedly described him as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down.” I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in college, three decades after it was written, required reading on a syllabus that only included one African author. I read his other books later, as well as some of his essays. The obituaries describe him as an African Literary Titan and a “towering man of letters”. True words, but he was more than that. Much has and will be written about Chinua Achebe as the writer that wrested writing about Africa – that vast and varied Africa, as if one writer could ever represent it – back from the West.
There is one poem by Chinua Achebe that has stayed with me for many years, not because it captures the global themes of colonialism or tradition v. Western values, but because it captures so perfectly the small moments of heartbreak and love that I myself have seen in the refugee camps I have visited in Sierra Leone and Ghana. That Chinua Achebe could capture the small moments of human connection along with the global themes was a mark of his genius. Upon reading the news of Chinua Achebe’s passing today, I read A Mother In A Refugee Camp again. I share it now, my own way of saying thank you, “like putting flowers on a tiny grave”.
A 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.
16 November 1930 – 22 March 2013