Chinua Achebe, author of “Dead Men’s Path,” was born in a village in eastern Nigeria; because he was a the son of a missionary, he had a Christian upbringing. He was educated in England at the London University but finished his schooling at University College of Ibadan. After Achebe returned home, he saw Nigeria freeing itself from the control of England as the country won its independence. Experiencing these two colliding worlds in his formative years most likely influenced his story, since primary conflict in “Dead Men’s Path” is the strife between competing worldviews. The story is set in a small village which is contested territory throughout, as the headmaster struggles with the villagers over matters of control. The story’s being set in a small village is vital because small communities are more likely to hold onto traditional values than larger, more progressive areas. Michael Obi’s attempts, similar to those of centuries of Christian missionaries in history, to revolutionize the village set everyone back further than before he arrived. He goes against the formidable beast of tradition without the proper tools or attitude, and loses spectacularly. In his exploration of symbolism, point of view, and characterization, Achebe contends that prosperity is unattainable when the beliefs of others are not treated with the proper deference, even if such beliefs are not shared.
Nature is as much at war with itself, as the people are with each other throughout the story. The garden of the school, representative of all the modernity that Michael Obi is attempting to bring out, is constructed around the old footpath which has much more utility than beauty, going against the ‘modern values’ that led to the construction of the garden in the first place. In the eyes of Obi, the path is “faint” and “almost disused,” but is actually sacred to the people. It is symbolic of all the ideas that the villagers fight to hold onto, values which the newcomer believes he can control. In the eyes of a person trying to change it, the footpath is inconsequential and the garden the epitome of beauty, representative of modern thought with “beautiful hibiscus and allamanda hedges in brilliant red and yellow.” The garden engulfs the footpath, but the footpath cuts through the garden. Neither is willing to give the other its own space, trying instead to impede. Thus, neither the garden nor the footpath achieves its full utility.
While the story is written in a third-person point of view, the reader is given insight into the motivations of the protagonist. By seeing the story through the eyes of Michael Obi, the new headmaster, the reader is able to understand that he has good intentions such as introducing “a high standard of teaching” and transforming the school compound “into a place of beauty.” He is not simply a villain who storms in and tries to terrorize a village by tearing away what the residents hold dear. We are able to have inherent sympathy for the villagers’ fight to keep the footpath because they believe “the whole life of this village depends on it” as well as sympathy for the man who is trying to change things because he wants to help. Obi believes that the best way he can help the people of this village is to educate them, to modernize them, and to make sure that the children don’t hold on to their parents’ superstitions. His pure intentions are muddled by his unbending refusal to try to understand a perspective that is different from his own. Instead, he dismisses it, planning “to show these people how a school should be run” because the way they have been running it has been unsuccessful. It is this stubbornness that leads to harsh consequences for everyone, especially himself. His own negative review from his superior was a sort of cruel justice for his ignorance. Achebe made Obi sympathetic because he wanted people to understand the logic behind some of Obi’s measures. These people who identify with Obi’s valiant efforts are Achebe’s prime audience. The illustration of Obi’s dreams as literally trampled on is a powerful warning to anyone endeavoring to pursue work similar to that of this protagonist.
Most of the conflict that led to the destruction of property and desecration of sacred values can be traced back to Michael Obi. His perception of the villagers’ way of life doesn’t allow either group to flourish. He arrives believing that “The whole purpose of our school is to eradicate just such beliefs” and that he is ushering in the future; in reality, he is stealing a piece of a culture and dismissing any chance he has of a cooperative effort with the villagers. His initial assessment that “Ndume School was backward in every sense of the world” blinds him to the sympathies of the people he is supposed to be helping. His youthful, stubborn superiority and misguided attempts to lead these people to the way of life he deemed correct are what lead him to the restriction of the footpath in the first place. This kind of insensitivity leads the villagers to defend their beliefs with force because they interpret his actions as an attack and their later misfortunes as divine retribution. After the path is blocked, “a young woman in the village died in childbed. A diviner was immediately consulted and he prescribed heavy sacrifices to propitiate ancestors insulted by the fence.” It is impossible for balance to be achieved between either side because one’s success is the other’s failure. Given several chances to make peace or appeal to the wisdom of others, Obi plows ahead, ignoring it all and leaving everyone, including himself, dissatisfied.
In many ways, “Dead Men’s Path” itself mirrors struggles Achebe must have witnessed in his own personal experiences, as well as a common experience throughout the history of European colonization. Wars have been waged over religion and ideologies in the past, and most likely will be for a long time to come. There will never be a real winner. No real change can ever be made in the world if different cultures do not attempt to achieve mutual understanding, no matter how small the issue at hand. If such efforts are neglected, people will continue to block each other’s footpaths with barbed wire and trample all over each other’s gardens.