In the short story “Dead Man’s Path” by Chinua Achebe our main character Michael Obi, is faced with a struggle between traditionalism and modernism. Obi is appointed headmaster at Ndume Central to help the otherwise unprogressive school. Having many ideas and being a young enthusiastic man, mission authorities felt he was the best for the job but being narrow minded is ultimately his downfall.
Michael Obi is very much a modern man. When Obi was speaking to his wife Nancy about his new promotion, she even insinuates the modern lifestyle is preferred by them. “‘We shall have beautiful gardens and everything will be just modern and delightful…’” (2). The narrator then goes on to explain that Nancy, in their two years of marriage, has gotten use to Michael’s ‘modern methods’. Not only is Obi a modern man but his view on his older colleagues is quite rude. He saw them as “‘…old and superannuated people in the teaching field who would be better employed as traders in the Onitsha market.’” (3). Obi is obviously stuck in his modern ways of life.
Upon Michael Obi’s arrival it is said that he put his and his wife’s whole life into the work. He made his wife’s dreams of beautiful gardens filled with bright colors a reality and making the school compound stand out around the ‘rank neighborhood bushes’. Obi also insisted that a high standard of teaching must be applied to the school. All of these changes help support Obi’s modernism way of thinking. When admiring his work he spots a woman passing through the school compound. “‘It amazes me…that you people allowed the villagers to make use of this footpath. It is simply incredible.’”(13). When Obi decided to block this path he did not listen to past stories of when it was previously blocked.
A teacher who had been at the school three years prior to Obi had said “‘The path…appears to be important to them. Although it is hardly used, it connects the village shrine with their place of burial.’”(14). In this quote the teacher is explaining to Obi the reason the path is used, trying to tell him that this path is important, possibly a tradition to the village people. The teacher then goes on to say “‘…I remember there was a big row some time ago when we attempted to close it.’”(16). In a way the teacher is trying to warn Obi of what might happen if he decides to block the path based on previous experience. Obi chooses to ignore the teacher’s warning and plants heavy sticks enforced with barbed wire at both ends of the path, but that was not the last time he was warned. A few days later the village priest of Ani called upon headmaster to further educate him on the symbolism of this path.
“‘I have heard…that our ancestral footpath has recently been closed.’”(20). The priest starts off the conversation.
“‘Yes,’ replied Mr.Obi. ‘ We cannot allow people to make a highway of our school compound.”(21).
“‘Look here my son,’ said the priest bringing down his walking-stick, ‘this path was here before you were born and before your father was born. 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 in to be born…’” (22). In this quote the priest is helping Michael Obi understand the importance of the path to the village. It is as if the priest feels that if he can educate Obi on the ancestral traditions of the path then maybe he would respect them and reopen it to the public. This does not phase Obi at all though. He simply replies that his purpose for being headmaster is to dismiss such beliefs and properly teach children the reality of life. Supporting once again Obi’s narrow view on tradition. The priest tries one final time to get through to Obi saying “‘what you say may be true,’ replied the priest, ‘but we follow the practices of our fathers. If you reopen the path we shall have nothing to quarrel about. What I always say is; let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch.’”(25). The priest clearly warns Obi in this quote when he mentions there is nothing quarrel about if Obi just reopens the path. He also doesn’t disrespect Obi’s mission on being headmaster but rather just states the traditionalism of the path and why it is such a big deal. The priest’s euphemism of the hawk and eagle shows equality. Two parties can share. Obi however still does not agree and the headmaster gives up and walks away, “‘I have no more words to say,’” he says walking out the door.
Two days later a woman had passed away giving childbirth and it was said that the ancestors required heavy sacrifices due to being insulted by the fence. Michael Obi woke up the next morning to the result of his doing. His once bright beautiful hedges and gardens he had put in for his wife were torn apart all around the school stomped on and cut down, and one of the school building pulled down. The man who was to come inspect Obi’s progress on the school, the white Supervisor, had showed up on this particular day and wrote a nasty report. If Michael Obi would have listened to both the priest and the teacher and respected the village’s traditions this would not have happened. He was too stuck in his modern ways to accept any part of tradition around his school and ultimately pays for it in the end.
Since Michael Obi cannot accept any traditions from the village he has come into, his career suffers. Ignoring the few warnings he received and having rude things to say about the people who he looked at as old or to have old ways, showed that Obi only cared for his outlook on life. He could not look past his modern way and accept an important tradition no matter what the cost was.