A Books@Work Favorite: Chinua Achebe’s “Dead Men’s Path”
November 29, 2018 | Maredith Sheridan
What do Books@Work participants read? The short answer: books, short stories, plays and more. Rich narratives – from literary fiction to memoirs – introduce us to new ideas, build genuine connections and foster more inclusive workplaces and communities. Before each program begins, we survey participants for their preferences, consult with professors and draw upon the knowledge and experience of Books@Work staff to choose the readings.
While some groups prefer books, others stick to one short story per session. Over time, we’ve found that certain short stories succeed with a wide variety of groups – executive leadership teams, police officers, healthcare workers and veterans alike.
One particularly successful Books@Work story is Chinua Achebe’s “Dead Men’s Path,” the tale of young, energetic Michael Obi, who takes a new role as headmaster of a Nigerian school in 1949. Eager to modernize the school, Obi finds himself at odds with the village priest when he denies villagers access to a sacred ancestral path through campus. When Obi refuses to back down, the villagers retaliate – and Michael Obi is left to deal with the consequences.
Barely two pages long, Achebe’s story is simple, accessible and straightforward. And yet so much lies beneath the surface for various Books@Work groups to tackle together. The story spurs essential questions that speak to diverse audiences: How do we respect tradition in the face of innovation and change? How do we avoid being blinded by our own sense of mission?
My colleague Stephanie Ash previously wrote about veterans in a residential treatment center and their take on Achebe’s story. “The path represents a way of life, culture. The path represents how they live and how they die,” said one participant. Stephanie continued, “Participants brainstormed other ways the headmaster and villagers could have compromised around cultural conflict while respecting each person’s need. One participant noted, ‘A good compromise makes both sides unhappy,’ which was met with laughter and affirmations.”
A group of colleagues working in operations at a large hospital connected “Dead Men’s Path” to generational differences in their office:
“The view of the old man versus the young man showed within our group, because you have people who value experience over the new generation that wants to change everything. Technology is the big thing. My manager was saying, ‘I know you guys send emails all day, but I get an email and the first thing I want to do is go see the person and talk to them [face-to-face].’ They may seem like a confrontational person, and then you [see them in person], and it’s the total opposite. It shows how what people think is important affects how they go through their day.”
One participant in a diverse group of executives, managers, and front line workers at a physician’s organization felt that the story revealed hidden similarities among the participants. “As the layers started to peel back, the thing I got out of the whole experience is that people and communities and cultures and countries, they may seem and look different,” he said. “But on the inside, I think everybody seems to have the same issues. . . It gave me a better understanding of the people I work with.”
In a group of police officers and citizens using Books@Work as a way to deepen community relationships, one participant seized on the miscommunication between Michael Obi and the village priest. Our executive director Ann wrote about this moment in a previous blog post:
“Reflecting on the story’s depiction of a spectacular failure of communication, he challenged the assembled group: If we can’t find ways to share our discomfort, challenge our assumptions, and open our apertures to the ideas and experiences of others, can we truly capitalize on diversity and move forward together?”
“Dead Men’s Path” demonstrates how one story can be so universally relevant, even when the readers come from disparate backgrounds, lifestyles and communities. The most successful Books@Work stories are both familiar and foreign; the setting of a Nigerian school is far different from that of a healthcare facility, but the failures of leadership and communication are profoundly resonant.
With each new Books@Work program, we seek to find stories and books that participants find uniquely relatable – but that also challenge their perceptions and open their minds in new ways.
Image: Isaac Levitan, A Path, 1877, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org