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What is the theme and setting of Chinua Achebe's "Dead Men's Path"?

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Chinua Achebe's "Dead Men's Path" is set in the fictional Ndume Central School, which has generally been presumed to be located somewhere in rural Nigeria at the time of British colonial rule, which lasted until 1960. The story is set more precisely in terms of chronology than geography, beginning with Michael Obi's appointment in January 1949.

There are several important themes in the story. Achebe himself has talked of "the crossroads of cultures," meaning the intersection between traditional Igbo culture on the one hand and the Christian culture brought by the missionaries on the other. Many Nigerians, like the author, were happy to live with both cultures, but Michael Obi insists on clashing with the local culture and trying to wipe out what he sees as absurd and primitive superstitions. The clash of cultures and the erasure of local tribal culture in Nigeria is therefore one central theme.

Aside from this specific clash, there are the more general themes of youth versus age and modernity versus antiquity. Ironically, Michael Obi, the twenty-six year-old representative of youth and progress is described as looking like a frail, stoop-shouldered old man, whose bursts of physical energy surprise people. It is as though he is fighting against his own frailty and mortality as well as the superstition of the locals. This is apposite, since the culture with which he is so impatient is ultimately his own.

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The main theme in Chinua Achebe's short story "Dead Men's Path" is, in essence, the conflict between a traditional value system and the modern principles and norms introduced by the British imperialists. The story indicates how deeply rooted the ancient cultural and religious beliefs are in the Nigerian mindset and how, when these traditions are challenged, those who believe in and follow such customs rebel against such an imposition. The tale also presents a microcosm of the larger nationwide conflict between indigenous Nigerians and the British colonialist authority from 1904 to 1960.  

During that period, many Nigerians adopted the newly introduced system with fervor, and some of them became its fiercest supporters and adherents. The traditionalists, however, deemed it an offense that their age-old practices and ideology should be replaced by something they did not understand or relate to.      

These two contrasting views, central to the conflict in the story, are represented by two parties. The new perspective is depicted by Principal Michael Obi and his young wife, Nancy, who both believe that the inhabitants of the area are backward and need advancement, while the villagers' traditional approach is embodied by the village priest.

Michael Obi and his wife arrive at Ndume Central School, situated in a southern district of Nigeria, and introduce many new changes—things they have learned from the missionaries.   

When Mr. Obi decides to block a footpath running through the school by using heavy sticks and barbed wire, he is confronted by the village priest, who informs him that the path is an ancestral passageway for their dead relatives to walk upon and for their ancestors to use when they visit. The priest tells him, furthermore, that the pathway is "the path of children coming in to be born." Michael dismisses the priest's request and suggests that an alternative route can be created. He disrespectfully declares that the ancestors "will not find the little detour too burdensome."

The conflict comes to a head when a young woman dies in childbirth two days later. The villagers consult a diviner, who advises that heavy sacrifices have to be made to appease the ancestors who are insulted by Mr. Obi's fence. The next morning when Mr. Obi wakes up, he finds that all his hard work is ruined. All the hedges and flower beds are destroyed, and a school building has been demolished. 

When the white Supervisor comes to visit the school later in the day, he writes a negative report about the terrible state of the premises and especially mentions that Mr. Obi's misplaced enthusiasm has led to "a tribal war situation between the village and the school." The ardent and arrogant principal has been humiliated and taught a terrible lesson.     

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The location of Chinua Achebe's "Dead Men's Path" plays wholly into to theme of the text as well. The story of Michael Obi, the Ndume School, and the village shrine/cemetery takes place in Nigeria. Obviously off the beaten path, the village and school are considered (by Obi) to be backward, lacking in Christian faith, and lacking progression.

The geographical location plays into the theme because of Obi's ideology that the villagers need to, in essence, be saved from themselves. He considers the villagers to backward in their religious thought (honoring deceased ancestors and practicing animism). Obi does not agree with the beliefs of the village, which is why he wires off the cemetery. His intent to modernize the village does not allow them to keep their current beliefs. Essentially, the theme of cultural conflict resonates throughout the story illustrated through the conflict between Obi and the villagers. The greatest action which speaks to the thesis is the destruction of the school's hedges and one building (the villagers simply refuse to conform).

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