Chinua Achebe is a renowned African writer of Nigerian origin. His works have been studied all over the world and he has received dozens of awards for his handiwork. His short story, The Dead Mans Path is just but one of his great works. In this story, Chinua Achebe tells of the story of a young man who is obsessed with modernisation and works as a teacher. He is promoted to higher status as a head teacher and this new position puts him into conflict with the village elders over a path. This story clearly depicts the situation in which most young people from Africa find themselves. There is a never ending cultural conflict between the modern theories and the traditional ones that have kept the culture alive over the years. The short story was written many years ago, but to date it is quite relevant and has been used widely for both learning purposes and also to remind the younger generation that tradition still is important. Chinua Achebe examines cultural conflict between modern ideas and tradition in the story. Literary devices of irony, setting and culture have been used effectively to bring out the theme.
The short story, The Dead Mans Path, is set in the traditional African society where very few Africans were educated. Michel Obi is the main character in the story and is depicted as a learned fellow who is quite energetic and has been chosen to take the post of head master in an unprogressive school. Michael Obi is chosen despite the fact that there are other older but less educated men as he puts it. This instance is already in contrast to the African traditions where the young men are supposed to be followers and not leaders. Having a young man to be the head teacher was putting a young person in a position of leadership whereas this is the role of the elder men in society. Since there were older men working as teachers, they should have been chosen to hold this position of power and not Michael Obi in spite of his education in accordance to African traditions. However, as a modern society, the most qualified person gets the highest position which puts Michael Obi rightfully in the place of a leader. This situation is the first cultural conflict viewed in the book between the modern society and the traditional one. On relaying the good news to his wife, Nancy, she is ecstatic because she believes that she will plant gardens and everything will be modern and delightful. This is already cultural conflict because the school is located in a village and not in a town. In villages, women were not expected to plant gardens for beauty purposes but to work hard in the farms. They did not plant flowers for aesthetic purposes but rather toiled hard in the farms in order to harvest food for their household use and also for trading. For this reason, the idea that she could make modern a school located deep in the village is conflict as it is against the interest of the traditional society.
It is ironical that Michael Obi finds the fact that the rest of his colleagues are unmarried. According to African traditions, a man was supposed to marry soon after his initiation. Since they were all working as teachers, it is clear that were all old enough to marry. Michael Obi sees their marital status as a good thing when instead it is a bad thing in accordance with the traditional customary rules. This, I believe, is conflict of interests and culture since the elders would view it as odd and wrong, while the modern generation would have no problem with it. It is ironical that Michael Obi believes that it the old people in the community are wrong for believing in spirits and in the traditions that they have been following all their lives yet he has been brought up by the same traditions and has been following the same beliefs until he became modernised. This ends up in cultural conflict since the old people stick to their beliefs yet Michael remains adamant to his modern beliefs, leading to the cause of damage on his school and subsequently a cross cultural war.
Culture in the African tradition varies from one community to the other. In the traditional African culture, learning was informal. In this case, boys learned values from their fathers and girls from their mothers. The presence of a modern school in this area is already in contrast of the traditional African view of education. Existence of the school is already conflict between the old, traditional belief and the modern belief where education is key. In African culture, the young are expected to obey the older people in the society without question and follow what they are told to the later. Michael Obi goes against this when he sees an old woman walking across the school compound. The explanation he gets from his co-worker, that the path has been in existence for many years is not satisfactory for him and he goes ahead to close down the path. He does not consider the purpose of the path and makes a hasty decision on the matter. In addition, pleas from the village priest, an elderly man fall on deaf ears. His explanation that the path has been in existence for many years and has been used by the departing souls to depart, and the new born babies to arrive do not yield any mercy. Michael Obi is adamant and scoffs at the old man by claiming that such beliefs are the ones the school was trying to eradicate from the young childrens mind. This is great disrespect in accordance with the traditional African society. It is a case of cultural conflict since the village priest advocates for ways of the past while Obi believes that the traditional era is gone and one needs not to believe in such practices. This leads to great conflict since Obi is adamant on keeping his fence intact against the wishes and pleas of the village priest, who is a representative of the villagers and communicates with the spirits in their place. In light of this, a woman dies during childbirth and the diviner consulted recommends that sacrifices should be made in order to appease the ancestors offended by the construction of the fence. Michael Obi still refuses to bring down the fence since as a modern man, he does not believe in these practices and existence of ancestors using a foot path. This means that the difference in modern and traditional culture greatly influences the decision that Michael Obi makes in regard to the fence he put up to block the footpath. This conflict leads to great loss when the flowers around the school are ruined and a building is pulled down. The cross cultural conflict has led to a developing war that could have lasting effects.
The short story clearly brings out the conflict that arises in traditional areas with the introduction of modernisation. Michael Obi is a young modern man and he finds himself in trouble after going against the traditional ways. It is depicted that culture cannot be compromised since tradition must be respected and followed even in the light of the modern world. It is a delicate balance and most traditional areas are still struggling to find a balance between the two worlds. As Chinua Achebe says, we lived in a cross cultural crossroads.the crossroads have a certain dangerous potency Dangerous because a man might perish there wrestling with multiple headed spirits, but also he might be lucky and return to his people with the boon of prophetic vision.
Achebe, Chinua. Dead Mens Path. Literature: A Pocket Anthology. Fourth edition. Edited by R.S.Gwynn. New York: Penguin, 2009
Authors perspective: Chinua Achebe; modern Africa at the crossroads of culture (1980)
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