Dead Men’s Path (by Chinua Achebe)


A contribution by Jan Balica based on the results of the work
of group number 4 (Annette Bechthold, Laura Löbelenz, Maurice Müller and Jan

In the short story “Dead Men’s Path” by Chinua Achebe a cultural clash between the rather traditional and almost supersticious inhabitants of a small African village and the new headmaster of the school Michael Obi and his wife, is shown.

Michael Obi and his wife Nancy are introduced to the reader as very progressive and modern people.
Michael is considered to be a “young and energetic man” (p.109, l.4) by the
Mission authorities and that is the reason why they send him to Ndume Central School.

He absolutely rejects the “narrow views” of the “older and often less educated
ones” (p.111, l.1/2) and instead of all these “conservative” and “unprogressive” methods he prefers modern ones. As a result he wants all his teachers to put all their energy into their work (p.111, l.21). This shows Michael’s absolute willingness to push his ideas through. Thus he wants to realize his “wonderful ideas” (p. 110, l.6) and his wife supports him in everything he does. She’s deeply influenced by Michael’s “passion for modern methods” (p.111, l.8). It seems that she has adopted Michael’s opinion.

This progressive attitude of Michael and Nancy Obi is obviously connected to a quite
western lifestyle that can be seen in several situations in the story. For example Nancy is reading a woman?s magazine when she’s talking to Michael (p.111, l.33) and she wants to have “beautiful gardens” (p.111, l.5/6) which appears to be closely linked to a very western lifestyle.

In contrast to this “modern” and “progressive” couple there’s the population of the village, which is really traditional. This is clearly shown when a teacher tells Michael how important the path which connects the village shrine with the place of burial is for the villagers and that it crosses the school compound (p.112, l.33).

The peak of this conflict is that Michael decides to close the path with “heavy sticks” strengthened with “barbed wire” (p.112, l.9 ? 11). As a result of that the village priest, Ani, goes to see Michael and asks Michael to remove the fence.
The priest symbolizes the traditional attitude of the villagers and he does now meet Michael who symbolizes progress and western values.

During their discussion Ani emphasizes the traditional importance of the footpath and he says that he is sure that “the whole life of the village” depends on it (p.112, l.22). He is trying to explain the meaning of the path to Michael, but Michael doesn’t take him seriously. He treats the priest condescendingly by listening to his arguments with a “satisfied smile on his face” (p.112, l.25) and instead of trying to respect the traditional attitude and the religious beliefs of Ani, Michael tells him that the “purpose of this school” would be to “eradicate such beliefs” (p.112, l.26/27) and he even goes further by considering it to be a duty of school to teach children to “laugh at such ideas” (p.112, l.28/29). Michael tries to force his attitude on Ani.
He doesn’t try to understand him or to work out a compromise, but he laughs at
him. After the death of a baby Michael’s fence is considered to be the reason for it and so his arrogance and stubbornness finally lead Michael to his own destruction because the inspector writes a nasty report about the school and compares the situation that Michael’s uncompromising attitude has created to a tribal war (p.113, l.47/48).

The central element of this cultural clash is that Michael tries to force his opinion on everybody and that he tries to realize an idea of modernization that is not rooted in cultural tradition. He doesn’t accept other attitudes and that finally, like the hubris of Greek tragedy leads to his own destruction.

Dead Men’s Path (by Chinua Achebe)

Story level

Michael Obi, a 26 year-old teacher is appointed headmaster of Ndume
Central School in a small village in Nigeria in 1949. His plan is to modernize the school in a progressive European way eradicating traditions and beliefs of his fellow citizens.

His young wife Nancy Obi is strongly influenced by his ideals and aims and she supports
him in his mission. Although she shares his progressive spirit she focuses more
on the private sector, thus her main goal is to beautify the school compound
and environment.

The school is built on an ancient path connecting the village shrine with the villagers’ burial place. This path is a very important part of the people´s lives as it represents birth, death and a link between them and their dead relatives.

When Michael decides to close this path in order to prohibit people from walking through his school he starts a serious conflict within the village. In a first reaction Michael is called by the village priest who tries to explain the importance of the path for the villagers and their beliefs, but Michael remains untouched and holds on to his former decision.

A few days later a young girl dies in childbed and her death is blamed on the anger of
dead relatives that in the villagers? eyes have taken offense at Michael´s closing of the path.

In a second reaction to Michael’s boldness they tear up the school and destroy the
compound. His work so far is ruined and when a supervisor arrives to judge Michael´s progress he writes a corrosive report commenting on the “tribal-war” situation arising from Michael´s overeager efforts.

Deeper level

What the author of this short story tries to show is that progress cannot be imposed on
the respective people from above but needs to develop slowly in their own minds. It can only be supported but never enforced. Michael fails because he doesn’t realize how deep the traditional believes anchor in the villagers’ minds and when he tries to eradicate and replace them by his European Christian ways he has to face overpowering resistance. His lack of respect for their values stirs up a huge conflict which ultimately leads to the failure of his project. This story is an excellent example for the cultural clash of African and European mentality and the incapability of both sides to respect each others differing positions.

The author doesn’t judge progress and modernization itself or even evaluate European
modernism and African traditions, he merely states that progress can only be achieved in cooperation with the people concerned.

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