Dead Men's Path

Dead Men's Path

Dead Men's Path is a short story by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, first published in 1953.[1]



Michael Obi is a young reform-minded educator living in Nigeria circa 1949. He is tasked with reforming Ndume Central School, a place known for its unprogressive or backwards ways.

Michael and his wife, Nancy, arrive at the village with the intention of forcing it into the modern age. Their two goals are to enforce a high standard of education and to turn the school campus into a place of beauty.

One evening Mike observes an old woman walking along a faint footpath that crosses the compound. After consulting with some members of the faculty, Michael learns that the school had attempted to close the path in the past and met with strong opposition from the nearby village. Afraid of giving a poor impression to the Government Education Officer scheduled to visit, Michael places a fence across the path and tops it with barbed wire. Three days after the fence is put up, Michael meets with the village priest, who explains the importance of the path and its relationship with the villagers' animist beliefs. Michael insists that the path remain closed and explains that the purpose of the school is to abolish such ancestral beliefs.

Two days later a young woman in the village dies in childbirth. A diviner recommends heavy sacrifices to appease the spirits who are insulted at having the footpath blocked. In the night the flowers and hedges are torn up and trampled to death and one of the school buildings is torn down. When the Government Education Officer arrives, he gives Michael Obi a bad review and writes "a nasty report" on the developing "tribal-war situation between the school and the village."


Cultural conflict between modern ideas and traditional animist beliefs
The tribal culture's animistic beliefs come into conflict with the modern ideology as personified by Headmaster Michael Obi.
Ignorance of others' beliefs
In the same way that Michael Obi does not tolerate the locals' animistic beliefs, the locals do not respect the right of property for the school grounds. The conflict reaches such a level that the white supervisors describes it as a "'tribal-war situation.'"
Twice makes a tradition
Despite Michael Obi's efforts, the villagers cannot imagine a path for the souls of the dead which would not cross the school grounds.
The zeal of the reform-minded African
Michael Obi holds ideological hostility to traditional African animist beliefs, believing that such ideas need to be "eradicated." His zeal actually contrasts with that of the white supervisor, who comments on Obi's "misguided zeal" as being unuseful.


The path
An imaginary line between the villagers' burial ground and their worship area, the path is not often used, but is essential (in the villagers' animistic belief system) for transmitting the souls of newborns, the dead, and ancestors of the village.
The flowers
Nancy Obi attempts to beautify and modernize the grounds of the school, but the new flowers are "trampled to death" after the villagers open up the dead men's path when they remove the fences placed by Headmaster Obi. The flowers represent the frailty of new modernthe roadblock Michael Obi and his modern reform-minded educators put up, which is of course trampled by the long-held animist beliefs of the local population.


John Obi Mikel
The new 26-year-old headmaster at Ndube Central School who wants to put his reform ideas in to action. Obi is headstrong and is unwilling to consider others' ideas.
Nancy Obi
The wife of Michael follows her husband's lead, and considers herself second in command, at one point thinking of herself as the "queen" of the school. She is the lynchpin behind the Ndube school's new gardens.
Old lady
She hobbles across the dead men's path, walking through a marigold flower-bed and hedges. This event causes Michael to fence off the dead men's path.
Priest Ani
A humble religious leader who addresses Michael about the villagers' concerns about needing the path. The priest explains the animist beliefs of the villagers, which Michael rudely dismisses as "fantastic."
Young woman
She dies in childbirth after the path is blocked off. The villagers believe her death was caused by the path being blocked which prevented spirits from traveling.
White supervisor
He inspects the Ndube school and writes a negative review of Headmaster Obi's leadership, saying that there was a "'tribal-war situation'" between the school and the village.


The story is set in 1949 in Ndube, a rural village in Southeast Nigeria. The school is run by those called the "Mission authorities," who have sent the reform-minded headmaster Michael Obi because Ndume Central School "had always been an unprogressive school." The action of the story occurs around the school grounds, which Michael and his wife Nancy attempt to beautify, but they run into interference because a local spirits' path runs crosses the school grounds.


  1. ^ Achebe, Chinua. Dead Men's Path. Literature: A Pocket Anthology. Fourth Edition. Edited by R. S. Gwynn. New York: Penguin, 2009.

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