Chinua Achebe’s Dead Men’s Path is a short story published in 1953. Like Achebe’s other novel, Things Fall ApartDead Men’s Path confronts the clash between indigenous communities and colonialism. Michael Obi and his wife, Nancy, are enthusiastic about his posting as the new headmaster of Ndume Central School, a local school known for cultural backwardness and lack of progress.

The pair has numerous ideas about forcing the school and local community into modernity, turning the institution into a beautiful place with flowers, and raising education standards. The strategy, however, does not make any compromise to accommodate the larger community’s cultural practices for peaceful coexistence with the locals he despises. Obi makes a grave mistake that results in cultural conflicts, ultimately failing his assignment.

For most of the Story, Obi and Nancy’s arrival threatens the villagers’ cultural practices. Obi’s ardent ambition is to turn the school into a place where learners can adopt a different identity by introducing the white man’s culture divergent from their ancestral and communal history. Obi’s zeal combines with Nancy’s desire to model herself according to the colonialists’ traditions while being contemptuous of the local’s traditions. Every plant in Nancy’s garden, including the allamanda and hibiscus hedges, is foreign and represents an obsession with the missionaries’ way of life. The path that cutting through the marigold flowerbed and hedges Nancy makes in the school compound is particularly important because it is an ancestral path linked to the community’s ancestors and burial rites.

However, Obi dismisses them as pagan rituals threatening positive remarks from the Government Education Officer (Achebe 11). Eventually, the school fences the two points where villagers previously entered and left the school compound. Despite the villagers’ willingness to negotiate, Obi replies, “The whole purpose of our school is to eradicate just such beliefs as that. Dead men do not require footpaths” (Achebe 12). Obi’s strong will represents how the colonialists considered themselves inherently superior and needed to achieve maximum control by replacing the old traditions with their own. Obi’s strong will and refusal to compromise and accommodate the villagers’ traditional practices set the motion for the cultural conflict and the ultimate failure of his assignment.

When the village priest of Ani calls on Obi, it is clear how much the path means to the villagers’. The village priest says, “…The whole life of this village depends on it. Our dead relatives depart by it, and our ancestors visit us by it. But most important, it is the path of children coming in to be born (Achebe 12).

The statement shows that just like other African communities before colonization, the people of Ani had a specific and vibrant shared culture that created a sense of community and identity. The priest’s concerns unarguably show the reader that the villagers have an established system of cultural practices and norms regulating the villagers’ collective existence enshrined in the natural cycles and environments. The village priest also notes, “…but we follow the prac­tices of our fathers” (Achebe 12). Here, the priest continues to make Obi understand the historical significance of the path and how much its closure will alienate villagers from their cultural practices and ancestors, resulting in discord that will disrupt the community’s unity.

Despite the priest’s pleas, Obi continues to undermine the path’s cultural and spiritual role and even ridicules the old man that he “don’t suppose the ancestors will find the little detour too burdensome” (Achebe 12). Notably, African communities had traditions structured to sustain their comprehensive spiritual, political, legal, and social order, which also required a sense of duty for the communities to preserve their way of life and maintain order in the solid system (Kusumawardani 156). The new identity Obi and Nancy seek to create not only threatens this order and is likely to create cultural tension and conflicts. The encounter with the village priest creates the climax of this cultural conflict.

Colonial domination and missionary activities disrupted the community’s ordered system. The use of the path despite the erection of the school shows how much the people of Ani tried holding on to what was left of their traditions. However, as seen in Obi’s actions, the missionaries and colonialists disregarded every aspect of the villagers’ culture. They sought to eliminate it by introducing a new way of life and religion by encroaching on their land and cutting down ties to their spiritual life. Approaching Obi shows that the villagers were willing to negotiate despite Obi’s refusal to acknowledge the importance of the path to their spirituality.

Although many Africans lived in well-integrated communities, they welcomed the colonialists because they were initially non-confrontational and cunning (Kusumawardani 155). In the case of violent domination, however, Africans resisted in various ways. Although not violent, Obi’s resolve and lack of cooperation stir the villagers’ resistance, manifesting after a villager dies in childbirth and the call to appease the ancestors for Obi’s insults. The Appeasement includes the physical destruction of the fence. Overall, the destruction of Obi’s fence shows there can be no reconciliation between both traditions, meaning the cultural conflict is unresolved.

In conclusion, A Dead Men’s Path is a story about the clash between traditional and modern values. Obi’s misplaced ambition ignores the local’s traditional way of life and is unwilling to compromise and accommodate a critical tradition, which thwarts the hopes of making everything in the school delightful and modern. Like in other books, Achebe highlights how the colonialists’ disregarded the local communities’ practices even if they provided stability, integration, and identity. The brutal subjugation of a local community, the legal obligation to assimilate the people, and the assertion of foreign traditions resulted in unresolvable cultural conflicts.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “Dead men’s path.” Retrieved September 20 (1953): 2012.

Kusumawardani, Maria Regina Anna Hadi. “Westernization and Colonization of the Mind in Chinua Achebe’s “Dead Men’s Path.” OKARA: Journal Bahasa dan Sastra 15.2 (2021): 155-169.

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