BOOK REVIEW: The witty adolescence of an African girl

Wednesday May 27 2020

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'Of Women and Frogs', by Bisi Adjapon. PHOTO | COURTESY 

By The EastAfrican

A plucky young girl in West Africa tells the story of her growing up in the novel Of Women and Frogs by Bisi Adjapon. Esi lives a happy life in Lagos with her Ghanaian father, Nigerian mother and younger brother. At the age of four she is separated from her mother when their father moves them back to Ghana.

Esi now lives in a loveless home along with a stepmother and four older half-sisters. From the start Esi’s much older stepsisters are her sworn enemies because she is her father’s favourite. While her brother Kwabena is free to play, Esi is thrown into a daily routine of housework and cooking supervised by Auntie, Papa’s emotionally battered first wife. Auntie must beg for food money every morning then proceeds to serve her husband the best portions of the meal each evening.

At nine years old Esi starts getting curious about her body but in their home, nobody talks about sex. Papa frequently threatens dire consequences if he catches any of the girls interacting with boys. Never mind that he has been carrying on a tryst with a hotel waitress. Even Esi is not above being called a tramp by the man who seems incapable of a loving relationship with his older daughters.

A FATHER'S INFIDELITY

Over the years we follow Esi as she blossoms into a young woman. She narrates her life and antics in unpretentious style with tongue-in-cheek humour, whether it is berating a wicked headmistress, her father’s infidelity or appropriating Bible verses to write adolescent love letters.

She and her friends look forward to secondary school where they can have boyfriends and a suppy, a romantic friendship with a female student. School is the one place where Esi’s individuality can express itself and her talents in academics and sports can bloom. She is the only one of her sisters to enter university.

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At home, little changes in the beleaguered household where Papa doggedly holds to his sexist attitudes and Esi is taken up with chores.

We encounter the painful discovery of what really happened to trigger the beginnings of self-assertion and a determination to make something of her life other than a good wife.

On the political context, Ghana vacillates between peaceful times and political upheaval as president after president is overthrown. However, the political agenda does not overwhelm the main narrative but parallels the heroine’s shaky quest for nurturing love, romance and identity.

On a visit to relatives in Nigeria, Esi meets a young man called Kayode and it appears she has found the love of her life. But she is also attracted to a Ghanian actor who seems both mentally and materially her inferior.

Of Women and Frogs traverses the coming of age experiences of young African women and Esi’s feelings and frustrations are relatable. From early on you are drawn to her mix of naivety, spunky personality and candid reflections.

Instead of coy references, there are unabashed descriptions of love-making. Her insecurities, arising from conflicted paternal affections and the absence of a mother, are endearing.

Bisi Adjapon is of mixed Nigerian and Ghanaian heritage and grew up in post-colonial Ghana, which explains why she relates Esi’s world so effortlessly.

In tracing Esi’s journey into adulthood Adjapon boldly explores the hard choices confronting African girls and covert topics such as unwanted pregnancies, back-alley abortions, masturbation and same sex relationships in boarding schools.

IMPERFECT CHARACTERS

On the matter of women’s disempowerment, she reflects how women are part of their problem, acting as if men are so frail “we need to hurt ourselves to make them look strong.”

The story has no major antagonist. Instead there are several imperfect characters that portray the mishmash views regarding African women’s sexuality and freedoms in modern societies still bound by old-fashioned customs.

Of Women and Frogs was named one of the Top 15 Books of 2018 by the Daily Trust and a shortened version was nominated for the Caine Prize.