The essay, “Dead Men’s Path”, attempts a bird’s eye view into the world of a notable African writer, Chinua Achebe, whose works center on African cultural heritage; its recognition and preservation in the face of the European or colonial culture. His contemporary, Ngugi Wa’ Thiongo, also retains similar disposition towards Africa and his works are channeled towards the African identity as well.
In some of Chinua’s essays and speeches, he recognizes his linguistics to be both Igbo and English. He noted that he considers his native culture beyond any other culture. Dead Men’s Path by Chinua Achebe will, therefore, consider his work from a place of conflicting cultural identities by a typical African character, Obi, who is trapped between colonial European and African cultures.
The essay is set in the colonial period of the East Nigerian region, precisely in 1949. A school, Ndume Central School, owned by one of the Mission Authorities available in Africa, required an energetic man who would revive the backward school. Ndume Central School is a backward school as it lacked the finery of the European impression of civilized education. Eventually, the Mission Authorities got Michael Obi whose appointment is revealed to have been his youthful ambition.
Of course, he was appointed earlier than he expected. He'd nurtured the idea that education should be operated in alignment with the European system. With the conversation he had with his wife about changing the school into the modern character, it can be deduced that Obi and his wife, Nancy, are more inclined to colonial practices. This set the pace of the story.
It was also revealed that Obi and Nancy despised previous principals. He posited that they were not passionate about the progressive values of European education, hence, they failed to develop the school as good educators. The family is excited and Nancy begins to see herself as Queen in the community and the school. Obi also began to see himself as more important than he is. He considered himself equal to colonial officials in his community.
It should be emphasized that jealousy set into this gleeful moment. This is because Nancy thought about the fact that the teachers in the school are young and Obi, now principal, may contemplate a second wife. This arouses the question of their values and doctrine. It is the tradition of the Ibos to have more than one wife while having more than one wife isn’t a typical European culture.
This shows that, although Nancy acts with sophistication in tandem to colonial civilization and values as much as her husband, she bothers about her husband's compromise to Ibo traditions. She shrugged the thought of her husband laying with one of the female young teachers and promised to assist her husband in achieving his dreams of turning the school into a school of a modern standard.
Obi’s physical body structure is unveiled. Although he is about twenty-six years old, the author revealed that he looks as if he is thirty years old. This presents the weakness of his body yet undeniable confidence and gut in his belief of colonial practices even amongst people of stark contrast cultures. It can also be suggested that, in the African context, his ideas are not the original and true ideas of Ibos, which makes it difficult for him to adapt to. Therefore, compelling and convincing himself to the foreign culture makes him appear prematurely old.
Obi introduced a high standard of teaching. He ensured the plantation of beautiful flowers and gardens, he demarcated the school territory with flowers and introduced teachers to a more sophisticated curriculum. This showed his emphasis on modernizing the school as a means of achieving the standard ideas of education which he had nurtured since childhood.
He ensured that students no longer conceive the world through their parents’ culture, rather, through the European culture. The flowers are clear symbols of the colonial culture and the demarcation of the school boundary (which was unusual) represents the separation of the school/colonial cultures to the Ibo culture outside the premises.
As he enjoyed his administration, he saw a woman walk through the school compound, into the garden and down to a narrow path. In anger, he blocked it after confronting a teacher who had told him that it is the community’s ancestral path for ancestors, newly dead persons, and newly born children. The teacher further explained that the path isn’t often traveled and it has been there since the community began.
Obi refused this and in his desire to inculcate colonial sophistication in the guise of maintaining the policies of the school, he created impediments to the paths. He blocked it because he believed it’s intolerable although he’d been warned that blocking the path would disrupt the community.
After three days, the priest visited him to advocate the opening of the path. The village priest is an elderly man who walks with the aid of a walking stick. Despite his physical poor state, he walked to the school to tell the principal of the history and importance of the path. Obi refused, as principal, and offered to assist in creating another path since the gods do not walk after all.
This presents the extent to which Obi regards the colonial culture over the Ibo culture. In the Ibo culture, gods and ancestors are village spines who deserve absolute reverence. It is contrary to the European culture; which doesn’t recognize African gods and ancestors. It is this same philosophy that Obi is engrossed with which made him disregard the warnings of the priest.
Two days later, a woman died while giving birth and a diviner was invited. The diviner submitted that the community needed to make heavy sacrifices to satisfy the already dissatisfied ancestors who had let the woman die because of the impediment on their path. This is because the path the newborn is supposed to pass through, according to the tradition of the community, has been blocked by principal Obi.
Obi, the next morning, woke up and met the school in ruins. The beautiful gardens, flowers, and a school building have been demolished. This presents the battle of the community. The community stood up against the man who violated their culture and everything he and Nancy carefully designed was destroyed.
Unfortunately for Obi, the Mission Authorities visited the school on the day of ruins. They realized that he has failed to live up to his pledge of teaching students on being good colonial subjects and rendering the school fit for colonial standards. He succeeded, however, in instigating a war between ancient Ibo tradition and colonial values and culture. He also received a bad review from a colonial press, a review that could signal the end of his career.
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