The setting in Chinua Achebe's "Dead Men's Path" is simple, even mundane, but it creates a serious conflict between Michael Obi and the villagers.
The setting is merely a school, the Ndume Central School, in a little African village. Obi has been sent there as the new headmaster, and he is determined to improve the school to the best of his ability. For him, this means both guiding the minds of the students (especially away from the superstitions of their ancestors) and filling the school grounds with beauty. With his wife, Nancy, to help him, Obi is determined to "show these people how a school should be run."
Things run smoothly at first. Obi and Nancy create beautiful hedges and gardens throughout the school compound. But then one evening, Obi sees an old woman cross the school grounds, right through the gardens, walking along a faint footpath. He is horrified and goes to one of the teachers to find out what that is all about. The teacher explains that the elders of the village use the path to connect with the burial grounds and that they are very attached to it.
Obi cannot abide by such superstition, much less by people tramping through the schoolyard. He has the path blocked at both ends. A few days later, the village priest visits him and explains the purpose and nature of the path. According to the villagers' beliefs, it is the path walked by the dead leaving life, ancestors returning for a visit, and children coming to be born. It must not be blocked, or horrible things would happen. Obi merely smiles patronizingly. This is exactly the kind of superstition he is trying to educate out of the children, he says. He will not reopen the path, but that little footpath, such a small line across the landscape, has become a major point of conflict.
When a young woman dies in childbirth two days later, the villagers attack the school, ruining the gardens, pulling down the hedges, and even tearing down one of the school buildings. Obi stands humiliated before the school Supervisor that very day, and the latter's report scolds Obi for his "misguided zeal."
Indeed, Obi is most certainly at fault for the conflict (although the villagers must be blamed for the destruction). Had Obi left the path clear and tolerated the villagers' occasional use of it, life would have gone on peacefully. He has not yet learned that there is a difference between respecting people and agreeing with their beliefs. He does not have to agree with them that the path is used by the dead, but he certainly should have respected them as people and treated them with dignity. If he had, he would have saved himself much trouble.