Happy 80th birthday Chinua Achebe

by Aki Schilz

Achebe appeared via videolink on Sunday, the day of his 80th birthday, at Reading Revolutionaries, the final event of the International Pen Free the Word! festival. He read out four of his poems, and the auditorium was hushed to silence as his voice rang out. Even over the crackly line, the grace of his reading and the power of his words palpably moved the souls of those gathered to hear him. This particular poem brought me to tears. I would like to share it with you:

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.

—Chinua Achebe