In Chinua Achebe's short story Dead Mens' Path, is there a symbolic meaning to the statement “Dead men do not require footprints?"

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Chinua Achebe’s Dead Men’s Path is about a young, enthusiastic Nigerian teacher sent with his wife to a remote village to modernize its school only to clash head-on with the ancient tribal traditions he had hoped to eradicate.  The “path” in the title is literally just that: a path that the local villagers believe is used by ancestors to visit and by the deceased to depart.  It is an extremely important component of their existence, but Michael and Nancy Obi, the newly-arrived teacher and his wife, hold such ancient beliefs in contempt.  Achebe describes the enthusiasm and arrogance his character brings to his new assignment, with absolutely no regard for traditions or tribal customs that may seem quaint to the Obis, but certainly are not to those to whom such beliefs are sacred.  This well-educated elite from the city has absolutely no doubt that he knows what’s best:

“He had many wonderful ideas and this was an opportunity to put them into practice. He had had sound secondary school education which designated him a "pivotal teacher" in the official records and set him apart from the other headmasters in the mission field. He was outspoken in his condemnation of the narrow views of these older and often less­educated ones.”

Nancy is the mirror-image of her husband in the arrogance she brings to the village:

“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 superannuated people in the teaching field who would be better employed as traders in the Onitsha market.’ She began to see herself already as the admired wife of the young head­ master, the queen of the school.”

With this introduction to his main characters, Achebe has set the stage for the clash of cultures that most assuredly will occur.  Discovering an old path that traverses school grounds, Michael determines to destroy it as one of those symbols of primitive beliefs he holds in disgust.  Expressing his thoughts aloud, with what he believes will be the implications for his future should he countenance such ancient rituals, he states:

"That was some time ago. But it [the path] will not be used now," said Obi as he walked away. "What will the Government 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."

The village priest, upon learning of Michael and Nancy’s (and note, by the way, the thoroughly modern, Westernized names Achebe employs in naming these antagonists) destructive activities with regard to the path, visits the school in an attempt to defend the need for the path:

"’Look here, my son,’ said the priest bringing down his walking­stick, ‘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 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.’" 

There is, indeed, symbolic meaning in Michael’s arrogant, condescending statement that “dead men do not require footpaths.”  Achebe most definitely intends for this exchange between the priest and the teacher to illuminate the conflict between modernity and ancient customs and rituals the importance of which to local communities should never be discounted.  Michael’s comment symbolizes that arrogance that, common to the academic profession, presents itself as learned yet is actually grounded in elitism and ignorance.  That the visit by Michael’s superior does not go well, with this new school administrator brought back down to earth, is plainly evident in Achebe’s final sentence:

“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 "tribal­war situation developing between the school and the village, arising in part from the misguided zeal of the new headmaster." 

It is kind of ironic that the “white Supervisor” actually ‘gets it,’ given the anti-colonial tone of Achebe’s story, but Michael’s comment regarding the footpath is emblematic of misbegotten attitudes on the part of outside interlopers.

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