Michael Obi’s ambition is fulfilled when, at age twenty-six, he is appointed to whip into shape an unprogressive secondary school. Energetic, young, and idealistic as he is, Obi hopes to clean up the educational mission field and speed up its Christianizing mission. Already outspoken in his denigration of “the narrow views” and ways of “superannuated people in the teaching field,” he expects to make a good job of this grand opportunity and show people how a school should be run. He plans to institute modern methods and demand high standards of teaching, while his wife, Nancy—who looks forward to being the admired wife of the headmaster—plants her “dream gardens” of beautiful hibiscus and allamanda hedges. With Nancy doing her gardening part, they will together lift Ndume School from its backward ways to a place of European-inspired beauty in which school regulations will replace the Ndume village community’s traditional beliefs.
So Obi dreams and plans until one evening when he discovers a village woman cutting across the school gardens on a footpath that links the village shrine with the cemetery. Scandalized by her blatant trespassing, Obi orders the sacred ancestral footpath fenced off with barbed wire, much to the consternation of the villagers. The local priest then tries to remind Obi of the path’s historical and spiritual significance as the sacred link between the villagers, their dead ancestors, and the yet unborn. Obi flippantly derides the priest’s explanation as the very kind of superstition that the school is intended to eradicate because “dead men do not require footpaths.” Two days later the hedge surrounding the school, its flower beds, and one of its buildings lie trampled and in ruins—the result of the villagers’ attempt to propitiate the ancestors whom Obi’s fence has insulted. After his supervisor issues a report on this incident, Obi is dismissed.
In Dead Men’s Path by Chinua Achebe we have the theme of change, tradition, progress, arrogance, control and ego. Taken from his Girls at War and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Achebe may be exploring the theme of change and tradition. Both Mike and his wife Nancy are keen to change how things are run at the school with neither paying too much attention or interest in how things have previously been managed at the school. Mike is critical of the local people who are using an old path that runs through the school. While Nancy appears to be more interested in how she will be perceived by others at the school. At no stage do Mike or Nancy take into consideration the feelings of others (local people) while Mike is headmaster at the school. Mike seems to be driven by his need to change things and his desire to push the school forward in a direction that is appealing to him (and which he considers progressive). Which may be important as it is possible that Achebe is suggesting that Mike, in his attempt to impose his will on the school, is forgetting about the past and tradition of the local people.
At no stage does Mike consider the local people’s use of the path through the school to be important. Rather there is a sense he considers the path to be part of a bygone era one in which he wants no part of. Though Mike is not a white colonizer he is in many ways acting like one by disregarding the importance of tradition to the local people. If anything Mike is attempting to impose his will on the local people just as a colonizer would do. Which may be the point that Achebe is attempting to make. He may be highlighting to the reader that a colonizer can come in many different forms and may not necessarily have to be a white person. Through his education Mike, like a colonizer, considers himself to be better than others and as such believes that other people (locals) should adhere to his way of thinking. This may be important as it suggests that Mike, though he may be educated by way of books, is in fact ignorant of the views and traditions of others. He believes his way to be the better (or correct) way. With no consideration given to others or their way of thinking. Mike is trying to control his environment while at the same time disregarding any feelings others might have.
Nancy too tries to control her surroundings by building a garden. Though it may seem to be insignificant the building of the garden is important because Nancy is attempting to reshape the landscape. To leave her imprint on the environment around her. Though it is noticeable that she is doing so with complete disregard to the local people. Though the garden may appear to be pleasurable to the eye it is impractical and of no use to the local people. Rather than improving things Mike and Nancy’s input on a local level is negative. Mike want to ‘eradicate’ the beliefs held by the local priest while Nancy wants to leave her visually appealing (in her eyes) imprint on the school. At no stage does the reader sense that the changes that Mike and Nancy are making are of any benefit to the local people. If anything their way of life is in contrast to the lives of the local people. This may be important as it is possible that Achebe is suggesting that change may not necessarily be of benefit to an individual. Particularly if the change is driven by ego. Which appears to be the case when it comes to Mike and Nancy.
The end of the story is also interesting as Mike appears to have learnt nothing. Which in many ways is ironic considering that his job is that of a teacher. By blocking off the path he has caused more problems than he has solved. Something that the school Supervisor is also aware of when he writes his report on the school. Rather than seeing Mike’s efforts in a positive light the Supervisor notices that Mike has created a ‘tribal-war.’ Through his disregard of local tradition Mike has succeeded in causing more damage than good. Inflated by his own ego he has managed to isolate the school from the community and rather than bringing any sense of harmony or unity Mike has made sure that he is not trusted by the local people. While at the same time he has managed to put his own position as headmaster in jeopardy. All because he wished to impose his will on others and ignore the traditions of the local people. Rather than being an agent of progress, as a school teacher should be, Mike has managed to alienate himself and the school from the very people the school was supposed to benefit. If anything Mike has been blinded by his own arrogance (and ego) and his belief that he knows what is best for the community. Instead of attempting to adjust to his environment Mike has tried to change and control his surroundings to suit his way of thinking.
McManus, Dermot. "Dead Men's Path by Chinua Achebe." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 29 Sep. 2016. Web.