Of Women and Frogs by Bisi Adjapon | Fiction | 416 pages | Farafina Books | Review by Jenn Augustine
Ghanaian writer and linguist, Bisi Adjapon’s engaging debut novel, Of Women and Frogs, is the coming of age story of Esi, a half-Nigerian half-Ghanaian girl in Ghana during the late 1960s and early 1970s. When Esi is young, she and her younger brother, Kwabena, are, without explanation, taken from their mother in Nigeria by their father and moved to Ghana to live with their stepmother and half-sisters. In Ghana, Esi finds herself ostracized by her peers for being a “dirty, ugly Nigerian” and by her half-sisters for being favored by their father.
In the midst of the chaos of several government coups, Esi struggles to understand who she is, for herself, in her family, and society. She attempts to make sense of her family, their secrets, and the double standards with which men and women are held in society.
From the very start of the novel, the reader finds Esi forced into the role of secret keeper for her father. While Esi and her father are traveling to Accra in order for Esi to see a doctor, she discovers her father is having an affair with one of the housekeepers at the hotel where they are staying. From there, the number of secrets Esi finds herself keeping for her family only grows. She is asked to keep secrets for her half-sisters regarding having boyfriends and having sex, both of which are expressly prohibited, with the threat of physical punishment or being kicked out of the house if they are discovered.
Being her half-sisters’ “secret keeper” puts Esi in the strange position of being incredibly close to them – she keeps their confidences, protecting them from the dire consequences of their actions. Yet, at the same time, she is utterly despised and rejected by them. They physically attack her, taunt her for her Nigerian features, and take pleasure in the cruelty she experiences at the hands of her stepmother.
At the same time, while Esi finds herself playing the role of “secret keeper” for many in her family, she is also aware that there are secrets being kept from her. No one will explain why she and Kwabena were moved from their mother or why her mother has not attempted to contact her since she and her brother left Nigeria.
These contradictory messages leave Esi confused and unsure of who to trust with her own secrets. When she attempts to confide in her family members, she oftentimes finds herself being punished for breaking societal norms of girl- and womanhood.
Double Standards for Men and Women
Early on, Esi notices the disparate treatment between men and women, boys and girls; Esi becomes so frustrated with the preferential treatment she sees extended to boys, she attempts to turn herself into a boy by allowing frogs to jump on her, folklore passed onto her by her friend Elisha.
Esi first becomes aware of the unequal treatment women and girls receive when contrasting her experiences with those of her brother. Even though Esi is older than Kwabena, Esi believes they are unfairly given the same amount of spending money by their father when heading to school. Further, Esi is forced to complete chores she was assigned when she was younger than Kwabena, while Kwabena is allowed to play outside, including emptying the nightly chamber pots and helping with meal preparation. Despite being only a couple years apart in age, due to these chores being viewed as women’s work, Esi must labor as an adult while Kwabena enjoys being a child.
These double standards are even more apparent as Esi learns more about sex and sexuality and begins having relationships with men. As a young girl, all Esi has learned about sex is that if she has sex, she will have disgraced her father, will be punished, and risks being thrown out of her home, all without ever having been told explicitly what sex is or how it is performed. These punishments are reserved for Esi and her step-sisters; there are no spoken or unspoken expectations of punishment for Kwabena if he is caught having sex. Further, Esi notices, her father is able to carry on affairs without consequence.
When Esi and her step-sisters do begin having serious relationships with men, their father holds their partners in higher esteem than his daughters, taking their husbands’ word over theirs, even when his daughters tell him their husbands are mistreating them. To drive home that their worth lies with their husband, their father repeatedly tells them, “A woman’s glory is her husband. Without a husband, you are nothing.”
Bisi Adjapon’s Of Women and Frogs is an exploration of a young woman’s journey to find and come to peace with herself, despite the negative pressures and messages she has received from her family and society regarding what she should know, how she should look, how she should behave, or, more simply, how she should exist. In the face of being devalued for being a woman – and in many cases, ostracized for not being the ”right” kind of woman – Esi continues to fight for her identity and the chance to thrive, which, while specific to Esi’s circumstances, makes her story relatable to all women, regardless of nationality, background, or upbringing.