Dialectics and Radical Acceptance in Achebe’s “Dead Man’s Path” and “Modern Africa as the Crossroads of Culture”

Achebe writes “Dead Man’s Path” to illustrate the folly of foreign intrusion: whether that is the white against black, the new against the old, or rather a clash in cultures. The protagonist, Michael Obi is a young, unimpressive man who has large ideas to beautify and renew the local, traditional school. He held rule over the teachers and buildings; his wife, Nancy, was concerned with her version of authority: she held dominion over the wives of the teachers and the beauty of the place (flowers, fauna, etc.,).

The conflict arises when an elderly Ani village-woman crosses the modernized campus. After denigrating the woman and casting her away, Obi obstructs the path with thick wooden beams and barbed wire to prevent further crossings. The villagers’ priest warns him and tells him to clear the path of the shrine to the burial grounds. Obi laughs and rejects the old man three times, though the priest only spoke twice, and held himself in silence for the third time: “I have no more words to say.” Obi could not let the white Supervisor see such silly rituals upon inspection, and so disregarded the omen.

The next day, the compound was in ruins: the hedges torn, the flowers trampled, and a school building was torn down. Obi, so concerned by the white supervisor’s review, could not have been further punished by scornful criticism. Besides the pitiful state of the compound, the Supervisor wrote: “the tribal-war situation developing between the school and the village, arising in part from the misguided zeal of the new headmaster.” No one has Obi’s back: not the villagers, not his wife, not the white Supervisor.

On a feminist note, Achebe falsely writes the ending: “Obi woke up next morning among the ruins of his work.  The beautiful hedges were torn up not just near the path…the flowers trampled to death…”  This claim is false in the sense that this was not of his (Obi’s) work, it was Nancy’s work and he cannot claim it. It is twice tragic to not only witness the destruction of beauty and benefit, but also to rob the woman’s achievement and claim to sorrow. She is completely invisible in her opinion or reaction. At the very least, Achebe could have written “their” work to improve the unity and visibility of the writing.

In “Modern Africa as the Crossroads of Culture”, Achebe describes the ease of mutability and flexibility of double religion. As a Christian,  he would imagine god shedding his divine light on his head, crowing him his beloved son and at the same time in his relatives’ “heathen” religion, he “never found their rice and stew to have the flavor of idolatry.” He denies a tortured soul: “If anyone likes to believe that I was torn by spiritual agonies or stretched on the rack of my ambivalence, he certainly may suit himself. I do not remember any undue distress.” Never the less we see this dichotomy in “Dead Man’s Path” between tradition and modernism, between black and white, between custom between clashing cultures.

A man who does not honor his origin, his culture, or his people is bound to be friendless, going to bed with only his failures. A man who seeks no help from his elders, who ignores the accomplishments of his partner, who casts out the very people he belongs to, is bound to see nothing but torn hedges, flowers, and have his buildings torn down. There is not a necessary duress or conflict in embracing both male and female, new and old, white and black. Complicated as it may be, it is the radical acceptance and dialectical relationships that leads to success. That is what Achebe teaches us through “Dead Man’s Path” and “Modern Africa as the Crossroads of Culture.”

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