Dead Men's Path
Chinua Achebe [che noo'a a cha'ba], a Nigerian, is one of Africa's best-known fiction writers. A member of the Ibo [e'bo] tribe, Achebe grew up in the vil-lage of Ogidi, where his father taught at the local school. At the University Col-lege at Ibadan, Achebe majored in Eng-lish literature and soon decided he wanted to become a writer: "At the uni-versity I read some appalling European novels about Africa . . . and realized that our story could not be told for us by anyone else."
In 1958 Achebe won fame with his first novel, Things Fall Apart; like much of his fiction, it explores the traumatic effects of African contact with Western ways. A decade later, after Nigeria had gained independence from England, Achebe was one of many Ibos who grew disillusioned with the new government and attempted to establish a separate nation called Biafra. As chairman of the Biafra National Guidance Committee, he traveled abroad with other writers, seek-ing support for the Biafran cause. The collapse of Biafra in 1970 prompted Achebe to retire from political life and devote most of his time to writing and teaching.
Nigeria and the Ibo
The West African nation of Nigeria is the homeland of more than two hundred different native tribes. The largest of these are the Hausa and Fulani, who live mainly in the north; the Yoruba, in the southwest; and the Ibo, in the southeast. Each group has its own language, but their com-mon language is English, reflecting close to a century of British rule that ended in I960. Chinua Achebe, though flu-ent in the Ibo language, usually writes in English.
Most Nigerians are Moslems or Christians, although an-cient tribal beliefs still persist. The Ibos, for example, tradi-tionally believed in a god so powerful that he had to be approached through lesser deities, each affiliated with a dif-ferent Ibo village. Today most Ibos are Christians; however, especially when Achebe was growing up, many Ibo villagers still showed respect for their local deity. Sometimes, as in the upcoming story, the old ways came into conflict with new Western ideas.
Dead Men's Path
Michael Obi's hopes were fulfilled much ear-lier than he had expected. He was appointed headmaster of Ndume Central School1 in Janu-ary 1949. It had always been an unprogressive school, so the Mission authorities decided to send a young and energetic man to run it. Obi accepted this responsibility with enthusiasm. He had many wonderful ideas and this was an op-portunity to put them into practice. He had had sound secondary school education which desig-nated him a "pivotal teacher" in the official rec-ords and set him apart from the other headmas-ters in the mission field. He was outspoken in his condemnation of the narrow views of these older and often less-educated ones.
"We shall make a good job of it, shan't we?" he asked his young wife when they first heard the joyful news of his promotion.
"We shall do our best," she replied. "We shall have such beautiful gardens and everything will be just modern and delightful. . . ." In their two years of married life she had become completely infected by his passion for "modern methods" and his denigration of "these old and superannu-ated people in the teaching field who would be better employed as traders in the Onitsha2 mar-ket." She began to see herself already as the admired wife of the young headmaster, the queen of the school.
The wives of the other teachers would envy her position. She would set the fashion in every-thing. . . . Then, suddenly, it occurred to her that there might not be other wives. Wavering between hope and fear, she asked her husband, looking anxiously at him.
"All our colleagues are young and unmar-ried," he said with enthusiasm, which for once she did not share. "Which is a good thing," he continued.
"Why? They will give all their time and en-ergy to the school."
Nancy was downcast. For a few minutes she became skeptical about the new school; but it was only for a few minutes. Her little personal misfortune could not blind her to her husband's happy prospects. She looked at him as he sat folded up in a chair. He was stoop-shouldered and looked frail. But he sometimes surprised people with sudden bursts of physical energy. In his present posture, however, all his bodily strength seemed to have retired behind his deep-set eyes, giving them an extraordinary power of penetration. He was only twenty-six, but looked thirty or more. On the whole, he was not unhandsome.
"A penny for your thoughts, Mike," said Nancy after a while, imitating the woman's mag-azine she read.
"I was thinking what a grand opportunity we've got at last to show these people how a school should be run."
Ndume School was backward in every sense of the word. Mr. Obi put his whole life into the work, and his wife hers too. He had two aims. A high standard of teaching was insisted upon, and the school compound was to be turned into a place of beauty. Nancy's dream-gardens came to life with the coming of the rains, and blossomed. Beautiful hibiscus and alla-manda hedges in brilliant red and yellow marked out the carefully tended school com-pound from the rank neighborhood bushes.
One evening as Obi was admiring his work he was scandalized to see an old woman from the village hobble right across the compound, through a marigold flower-bed and the hedges. On going up there he found faint signs of an al-most disused path from the village across the school compound to the bush on the other side.
"It amazes me," said Obi to one of his teach-ers who had been three years in the school, "that you people allowed the villagers to make use of this footpath. It is simply incredible." He shook his head.
"The path," said the teacher apologetically, "appears to be very important to them. Although it is hardly used, it connects the village shrine with their place of burial."
"And what has that got to do with the school?" asked the headmaster.
"Well, I don't know," replied the other with a shrug of the shoulders. "But I remember there was a big row3 some time ago when we at-tempted to close it."
"That was some time ago. But it will not be used now," said Obi as he walked away. "What will the iiovernment Education Officer think of this when he comes to inspect the school next week? The villagers might, for all I know, decide to use the schoolroom for a pagan ritual during the inspection."
Heavy sticks were planted closely across the path at the two places where it entered and left the school premises. These were further strengthened with barbed wire.
Three days later the village priest of Ani4 called on the headmaster. He was an old man and walked with a slight stoop. He carried a stout walking-stick which he usually tapped on the floor, by way of emphasis, each time he made a new point in his argument.
"I have heard," he said after the usual ex change of cordialities, "that our ancestral foot-path has recently been closed. . . ."
"Yes," replied Mr. Obi. "We cannot allow people to make a highway of our school com-pound."
"Look here, my son," said the priest bringing down his walking-stick, "this path was here be-fore 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 ances-tors visit us by it. But most important, it is the path of children coming in to be born. . . ."
Mr. Obi listened with a satisfied smile on his face.
"The whole purpose of our school," he said finally, "is to eradicate just such beliefs as that. Dead men do not require footpaths. The whole idea is just fantastic. Our duty is to teach your children to laugh at such ideas."
"What you say may be true," replied the priest, "but we follow the practices of our fa-thers. If you reopen the path we shall have noth-ing to quarrel about. What I always say is: let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch." He rose to go.
"1 am sorry," said the young headmaster. "But the school compound cannot be a thor-oughfare. It is against our regulations. I would suggest your constructing another path, skirting our premises. We can even get our boys to help in building it. I don't suppose the ancestors will find the little detour too burdensome."
"I have no more words to say," said the old priest, already outside.
Two days later a young woman in the village died in childbed.5 A diviner6 was immediately consulted and he prescribed heavy sacrifices to propitiate ancestors insulted by the fence.
Obi woke up next morning among the ruins of his work. The beautiful hedges were torn up not just near the path but right round the school, the flowers trampled to death and one of the school buildings pulled down. . . . That day, the white Supervisor came to inspect the school and wrote a nasty report on the state of the premises but more seriously about the "tribal-war situation developing between the school and the village, arising in part from the mis-guided zeal of the new headmaster."
1. Why have the Mission authorities decided to send a "young and energetic" man to run the Ndume Central School? About what is the new headmas-ter, Michael Obi, "outspoken"?
2. What does the path through the school compound connect?
3. What explanation for closing the path does Mr. Obi give the village priest? After the priest explains the path's significance, what does Mr. Obi say about "the whole purpose" of the school?
4. What does the visiting supervisor write about the new headmaster after villagers damage the school grounds?
5. Contrast Mr. Obi's attitudes with those of the vil-lage priest. Which character shows more toler-ance toward the other's attitudes?
6. What does the story suggest about the way people should treat the beliefs of others? What does it suggest about the way people should go about making changes?
7. Based on the priest's remarks, what can you infer about traditional Ibo attitudes toward their ances-tors and their heritage?
8. Can the clash of new ways with the old be resolved non-violently? How? Give examples from your own experiences.