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"Dead Man’s Path; by Chinua Achebe

This story by Chinua Achebe presents the conflict between world-viewsand value systems. Dead Man’s Path is set in Nigeria in 1949. It is onthe subject of a man named Michael Obi who is the new, enthusiasticand wholehearted headmaster of an underprivileged and disadvantagedschool. This story explores the effects of European customs andbeliefs on traditional African culture.

Michael Obi is the new headmaster of Ndume Central School. The Missionauthorities selected him for the job as they wanted a “young andenergetic man” to administer it. Michael is a married twenty-six yearold man. His wife, named Nancy, is slightly egotistical butnevertheless very kind and considerate towards her husband:”For a few minutes she became sceptical about the new school, but itwas only for a few minutes. Her little personal misfortune could blindher to her husband’s happy prospects.”Michael is a very passionate person with many ideas that could helptransform the school. He believes in the modernisation andtransformation of old beliefs. He seems to have been ‘infected’ byEuropean customs.

The word ‘infected’ is used, as it may have beenthought of a bad thing then, in African culture, to believe in modernmethods:”In their two years of married life she had become completely infectedby his passion for ‘modern methods’.”Michael had two aims for the school: A high standard of education forthe children, and for the school compound to be turned into a place ofbeauty. He also decided what sort of teachers ought to be employed atthe school. He chose that all teachers should be young and unmarried.He believed that this way, all the teachers would put all their timework and energy in to their job and not be distracted my othercommitments and people.

His wife Nancy was against this idea as shewanted the teachers to be married so that other wives could “envy herposition” and “she would set the fashion in everything.” This is a keyexample of Michael’s wife’s self-centredness.Michael managed to transform the school gardens into a place ofbeauty. One day while he was admiring his work, he saw an old womanwalking along a disused path that ran through the school compound.This annoyed Michael and he inquired one member of his staff about it.He found out that this path is apparently very important and blessedas it connects the village shrine to the cemetery. Michael was veryselfless at this moment and decided to close down the path, as in afew days a “white inspector” would be coming to visit the school.Michael felt that the school couldn’t be used as a ‘through fare.’Soon the path was closed, and blocked of with barbed wire.

A few days later the village priest called upon the headmaster. The priest talkedwith Michael for a while. He wanted Michael to reopen the path. Youget the impression from the priest that he is a very frail and elderlyman who doesn’t wish to start argument, but merely get his opinion andthoughts across to Michael. The priest believed that the path was verysacred as ‘our dead relatives depart by it, and our ancestors visit usby it.’This is a key example of traditionalist values: the path is ancientand sacred and dates back a long time; it is of great importance tothe village as it is a link from the dead relatives to the villageshrine.Michael responds to the priest with a ‘satisfied smile’ upon his face.He tells the priest that the whole idea of a ‘dead man’s path’, is exactly what he is teaching the children not to believe in.

Michael believes that the whole idea of a dead man’s footpath is completelyfictional, imaginary and ‘fantastic.’ The priest responds by tellingMichael some words of wisdom:’Let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch.’ This is basically sayingthat if you do what I say, we shall be at peace. The path does noharm; you carry on with your school, and let the path be reopened. Thepriest then leaves Michael alone. I believe he does this as he wishesfor Michael to reflect on what he has just said.A few days later a woman died while giving birth to a child. A diviner(spiritualist) prescribes heavy sacrifices to propitiate ancestorsinsulted by the fence. This therefore means that the diviner is angrythat the path has been closed, and blames the death of the women onthe closing of the path.

The diviner believes that ancestors and deadpeople have been insulted by the blocking of their path. Thus,Michael’s modernised school is pulled down and the gardens aretrampled upon. The inspector then came to visit and wrote a very meanreport about the school and the situation between the school and thevillage.This story shows us how modernization can clash with traditionalistvalues. The closure of the path clashes with the views of the peopleand the priest.

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