Dead Men's Path Summary

"Dead Men's Path" examines the conflict between European values and traditional Nigerian beliefs.

  • Michael Obi is appointed headmaster of a school in a small village. He intends to reform the school based on European values and modern ideas.

  • Obi is offended when he sees a local woman walking along a path through the school grounds and is dismissive of the village priest's attempt to explain the path's spiritual significance. He orders the ceremonial path be fenced off.

  • In response, the villagers destroy the school's carefully maintained gardens, resulting in the visiting supervisor writing a scathing report.


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Last Updated on November 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591

In January 1949, Michael Obi is delighted to become the headmaster of Ndume Central School. The authorities at the local mission find the school “unprogressive” and hope that the young and enthusiastic new headmaster, with his secondary school education, will correct this problem.

Obi has a passion for “modern methods” and regards the more old-fashioned residents of his village with scorn. His wife of two years, Nancy, shares his sentiments and looks forward to creating “beautiful gardens” on the campus, as well as being admired and envied as the “queen of the school” by the other teachers’ wives. To Nancy’s disappointment, however, Obi says that all the other teachers are young and unmarried. Nancy quickly recovers from this news, however, when she sees how happy her husband is about his new role. She reflects that although only twenty-six, he already looks at least thirty.

Soon enough, Obi and his wife are dedicating all their time and energy to modernizing the “backward” Ndume School. Obi’s two main goals are to deliver a “high standard of teaching” and to beautify the school’s grounds. When the rains come, the school’s lovely new gardens bloom and flourish.

One day, Obi watches an elderly villager cut across the campus and disappear down a faint path leading from the village and across the school to the bush. Perplexed, he mentions the path to one of the teachers and expresses his amazement that the villagers are allowed to use it. The teacher, who has worked at the school for a few years, explains that the path is of great importance to the villagers because it leads from the local shrine to the place where the dead are buried. There had thus been a “big row” when the teachers had tried to close the path in the past. Undeterred, Obi determines to close the path for good—and before the Government Education Officer visits next week. Access to the path is promptly blocked by sticks and barbed wire.

A few days later, an elderly priest of Ani visits Obi from the village and says he has heard the news about the closure of the path. Obi confirms the story and explains that he couldn’t allow the villagers to “make a highway” of the school’s campus. The priest argues that the path existed long before Obi was born and that it is essential to the life of the village; it is the path used by the spirits of the dead, by the ancestors, and by the souls of children yet to be born. Obi smugly retorts that doing away with just such traditional beliefs is the entire goal of the school. At this, the priest advises Obi once more to reopen the path, saying, “let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch.” Obi apologizes and offers to help the villagers construct a new path, but the priest has nothing more to say to him.

A young village woman dies in childbirth two days later, and the villagers summon a diviner for advice. The diviner recommends that the villagers make sacrifices to the ancestors, who are angry about the closure of the path. The next day, Michael Obi awakens to find that the school has been badly damaged: one of the buildings has been torn down, and the plants have been uprooted and trampled. The Supervisor, a white man, visits the campus that day; he writes in his report that Obi’s “misguided zeal” has resulted in tribal warfare between the village and the school.

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