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African Writing Archives


Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond


Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond

Brew-Hammond is a journalist (Village Voice, Metro); poet (Growing Up Girl anthology); playwright (2001’s off-Broadway production, Ends Meet); screenwriter (2003 Sundance Institute Screenwriters’ Lab Finalist); copywriter for clients including Nike and L’Oreal; and editor. A cum laude graduate of Vassar College, she attended secondary school in Ghana, and recently completed her first novel, Powder Necklace, loosely based on the experience.


 Bush Girl

When I caught my reflection in the Blockbuster window that morning, I saw it. I looked like every other girl walking down Flatbush Avenue. My hair was fried, frizzy, streaked with bleach. The ends were split in twos and threes, floating in the wind of that sunny fall day. I had on a Gap jacket, a pair of Levi’s and some Reebok Classics. I wouldn’t have noticed me. I let the VHS case loose in the abyss of the drop slot and walked home in a stupor.

Home was a sixth floor apartment in a building crawling with roaches. Outside the building, the Super kept two trash bags speared through the spokes of the gate that didn’t latch closed because the catch had been pried open. Cigarillos fillings, blunt roaches, whole and broken bottles of Mad Dog, Heineken and OE joined chicken bones, pampers and Newport cigarette cartons to overflowing.

Next to the garbage, a brigade of boy-men stood guard, alternately laughing and harassing, calling “Ay, Gal!” and “’Sup, shortie?” to any thing with breasts or a “big ol’ butt” that passed by. Kids rode their bikes too fast up and down the sidewalk leaving their little brothers and sisters plodding behind on their tricycles.

The Heights it wasn’t, but the rent was cheap thanks to Auntie Freda’s 15 year old lease. And my apartment was way bigger than the couch bed that had been my bedroom in the apartment on 6th and A. Brooklyn was good for that. In the shadiest building, on the dodgiest block, you could always find a decent-sized apartment with hardwood floors and moulded ceilings.

I had painted my bedroom Martha Stewart marigold and the living room Benjamin Moore tawny. The kitchen was lunch counter style – white and black tiles on the floor and a single stool under the counter. I had painted the bathroom white and hung a framed black and white nude on the door.

There weren’t any pictures up in the living room of family or anything, just one of my comp cards in the magazine basket piled with Vogues, Harper’s Bazaars and “Black Girls Rule!” issues of Trace. I kept the comp card because it was what I had to show for seven and a half years of trying to be anything but every other girl walking down Flatbush. I didn’t care what anyone said. I looked good in those pictures.


When I had overstayed my visa seven summers ago, my plan was to cash in on all the “You are so striking!”s I had heard on my many long vacs to London and New York. The Plan was to be discovered. The bit of fashion that had trickled down to me in Ghana through magazines and MNET (when cable had finally hit Ghana), had convinced me through Iman and Roshumba and Naomi that the world was ready to celebrate my kind of beauty.

The summer I had come to visit Auntie Freda, the summer before I was to start my first year at the University of Legon, I knew I wasn’t going back to Ghana until I was international. I didn’t know what I would tell Daddy or how I would get around the strictures of my three-month student visa, but that was before 9/11 and back then I knew God, so I prayed.

I couldn’t go back to Ghana. Sure, Daddy had a lucrative business. A big house. A driver. A Land Rover for the unfinished roads. A Benz for evening outings and afternoon luncheons. But I wasn’t a business or science student. I wouldn’t be snapped up by Mobil or Shell or some other multinational, be paid in dollars, meet and marry a boy whose father owned a home on Switchback Road. Besides I didn’t want any of that. I wanted the big house, the luxury cars, the dollars and sterling on my own terms. And I had a plan to get them. I was going to be a supermodel.

When Daddy called to tell me the recurring teachers’ strike had resumed, I felt convinced of God’s endorsement. That very night I prayed a promise to God that I would serve him forever if he made me the international supermodel I knew I was born to be. I practically fell to my knees with thanksgiving right in the middle of the shop when Selima, then the manager at Alain et Riette, asked me in her raspy Moroccan accent if I’d be willing to work off the books. Thank you, Jesus! Thank you Lord, for loving me!

Back then I got it, but I didn’t get it. I had read in Allure Magazine that Paulina Models, then newly-opened in SoHo, was looking for girls with a “different look”. In my 19 year old mind I didn’t realize that just meant they were looking for the latest industry obsession, girls from behind the Iron Curtain.

On my first day on the job I went to four agencies on my lunch break. They all turned me down. At one agency a woman emerged from a glass office and asked me, “How tall are you?”

I answered with the truth, “Five-seven.” After all, what? Carolyn Murphy was 5’7” in flats. Kate Moss was shorter. They had both come into Alain et Riette to try on shoes. Another divine endorsement, I thought back then.

The woman wrinkled her nose at my answer. “We’re looking for someone a little taller. Besides, we have a girl here that looks just like you.”

The receptionist at Women told me they didn’t accept walk-ins. Lolita, I realized from the 24” x 48” posters of toddlers wallpapering the loft space, was actually a child models' agency.

Click had shown interest. I know I didn’t imagine the lingering look the man behind the desk gave me. Herman Jones, his desk plate read. “Do you have any pictures?” he asked me. I handed him a letter-size envelope filled with the pictures Kweku had taken of me. Herman waved them away.

“Do you have anything professional?”

It was my turn to wrinkle my nose. The Plan had to be altered slightly – again. I wouldn’t make it by walking into an agency and leaving with a contract. I would get professional photographs taken, then walk into an agency and leave with a contract. After all, what? I was very photogenic. Kemi Chiode had always been jealous of me back at Mfantsiman because of it.

I could smile now at the asεm that ensued when it went public that Kojo Bonney, Kemi’s boyfriend at Adisadel College, had sent me a Mr. Postman card for Val’s Day because he’d seen a snap Kweku had taken of me. Kemi had surrounded me with a group of her friends, but I wasn’t intimidated. I gave it to her.

“After all, what? Did I ask Kojo to send me a Mr. Postman? Is it my fault he thinks I’m more beautiful?” I left her standing there to contemplate the answers.

After a month working at Alain et Riette, I met Kyra, an aspiring model. She had come into the shop to try on Lapin, the new boot that had come in from Paris. She didn’t buy the rabbit-fur boots, but we got to talking and she mentioned she was looking for a roommate. She lived on 6th and A.

I was convinced that the opportunity to live in Manhattan was another sign. If I lived with a real model, in the city, I would have the chance to see how the business really worked, meet all the right people. Chances I didn’t have living in Flatbush with Auntie Freda.

Living with Kyra turned out to be a mistake. Kyra was very secretive about how she got jobs, yet wouldn’t talk to me whenever I got a casting. I threatened her, I quickly deduced, and I could understand why.

Kyra was ma trick-e wo – what the movie Clueless had cleverly termed a “Monet.” She was lanky with a tiny web of periwinkle veins under her milk-yellow skin, but she did have beautiful, waist-length brown hair. From afar she looked like a young Carol Alt. Close up, she didn’t. But, again, back then I didn’t get that she was white. The girl had to turn down work.

I moved back to Brooklyn just after I hosted Abena Duncan. I got a letter in the mail one day, a folded blue sheet stamped Par Avion was sandwiched between my Trace Magazine and a Chase Visa credit card bill with Abena’s name scrawled in the upper left corner. Abena and Kemi Chiode had been best friends.

I peeled the folded paper apart gingerly and scanned its cursive contents. Fiona Bonnah had given her my address. Abena was coming to America – Arlington, Virginia with a stop in New York. Would it be okay if she came and stayed with me for the two weeks she would be in New York? She would be flying into JFK next week Friday. Could I arrange for someone to pick her up at the airport?

I remember my head hurting after I read the letter. The exaggerated tales I had written of partying with Puffy – he had been at Club Cheetah last Monday night and looked my way when I slinked past him – and the lavish description I had given of my new apartment “just outside SoHo” knocked at my skull harder than Daddy’s raised knuckles ever had when I misbehaved as a child.

I was going to kill Fifi for doing this to me. I had specifically forbidden her, my closest friend at Mfantsiman, to give my contact info to any of the Mfantsiman Girls looking for shelter in the States. Now I was staring at a letter from, of all people, Abena Duncan – Kemi Chiode’s number one paddy!

I looked around the apartment. Where would the girl sleep? With me, on the pull-out? I couldn’t entertain her. I would be at work all day, and at night, the last thing I wanted was to take Abena out with me. Abena talked too much. I could just hear her telling Ghana folk that I had become a spoilt girl because I went to parties and had wine in my fridge.

But I knew I couldn’t turn her away. No matter how long I lived in Abrokye, I was a Ghanaian and Ghanaians were hospitable people. Abena would have to come and see that I shared a tight one-bedroom with a weird white girl; that I had no money even though my closet was full of $600 and $800 Alain et Riette shoes.

After I re-read Abena’s letter, I pulled out my thick manila envelope of professional pictures. This envelope contained $1500 worth of photographs. The first $400 spent on Auguste, a French photographer whose studio doubled as his apartment. The lighting had been so bad you could see the makeup clogging my pores.

The next $1000 was spent on Cesar who had “worked with Naomi.” The pictures in his book hadn’t been amazing, but they were clean and clear. He let me know he was a wizard at retouching, but the pictures he took of me came out grainy – too art house. The last $200 was spent on Tina, a second year graphic design student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Hers had come out the best.

Honestly, none of the pictures really sang, but I rounded up the best of the bunch and gave them to a printer in Chelsea, on 17th and 8th, to make a set of composite cards. The New Plan: Get comp cards made, go to every agency in New York, leave a card behind, and wait for a phone call.

At that point, I hadn’t given up on The Plan, but I wasn’t averse to giving up. It had been a long time since someone had called me “striking.” I got “fierce” a lot, but both compliments weren’t “beautiful” which is what I am.


Abena’s letter came the day before my 26th birthday. I didn’t have a college degree. I had meant to start school once I got settled, but I had never really settled. I had also never gotten around to sorting out my papers situation. My visa had long ago expired. I was an illegal alien and 9/11 had happened.

I had no savings. Each month, I sank my $1500 paycheck into bills, my ridiculous Manhattan rent, eating out or ordering in, buying clothes and taking pictures. I still owed a balance of $175 on the comp cards I’d just made with Tina’s pictures. I had written Fifi that I was modeling… Oy.

Now that I thought of it, Abena could not come. I planned to write her as much in a Global Priority Mail the following morning. I was off work – Jolie, the receptionist in the corporate office, filled in for me at the store twice a week for extra money – so I would put on my periwinkle pair of Lapin with my periwinkle Anna Sui coatdress, pick up my comp cards and storm every agency in Manhattan. After all, what?

I basked in the stares and glares I got in my periwinkle get-up. I was Billa Banful – B.B. Brick they used to call me at Mfantsiman – and you don’t kid with The Brick. Bouncing through the brisk March morning in my fur boots I turned to enter Flatiron Graphic Printers.

Juan Cabrera smiled when he saw me strut into the shop. Oh Juan. He told me later, when he saw me that day he just couldn’t let me drop $300 on those cards.

“I wasn’t even trying to get at you, Bill,” he explained when we were an old couple and I was wearing a bra and his boxers picking at the Chinese rib tip dinner he was eating from his plate. “I was jus’ like, the poor thing wants to be a model. I have to tell her those pictures don’t do justice. Yo, every day, girls used to walk into the shop with pictures worse than yours – spending cake to make comp cards.

“Sometimes, Bill, I’d see some of ‘em not even two months later grinning from off the pages of some fashion rag, but you, you weren’t some bland, Heidi type. I knew you needed fire to sell you to those agencies.”

I wrapped myself around him when he said that. Juan had always believed in me. He put one arm around my waist and snaked his other arm around me to pluck a rib from his plate.

“What I really wanted to tell you was to take out those contacts. They screamed ‘Third World.’”

Juan has this theory that all Third World babies born before ’76 have yellow eye-whites because the post-natal eye drop hadn’t become a standard medical practice in much of the Third World till the late ‘70s. He knew this because his own hazel irises swam in filmy beige balls. “Born and raised in Guatemala,” he told me when I asked him where he was from over dinner – our second date.

When I first saw him behind the counter at the printer’s, I didn’t want to stick my tongue in his dimples to see how deep they were; didn’t notice how his long eyelashes brushed the jutting bones of his cheeks. I was freaking out.

“Hi. You’re here to pickup your comp cards, right?” he asked me.

I nodded, dying inside. If the cards didn’t do me justice, that was it. I was going back to Ghana, going to Legon and getting married. A hopeful home on Switchback Road didn’t seem like such a bad future after all.

“What was your name again?”

“Wilhelmina Banful.”

Juan sorted through the stacks of envelopes under the counter and slowly pulled out my box from the stack. I could see he was hesitant to hand it to me, but I attacked the box like it was a Christmas present. I inhaled, exhaled and when I opened the box I didn’t have an orgasm, but it was relatively satisfied. The cards looked okay. I made a mental list of the agencies I would hit: IMG, Alek’s agency, Wilhelmina, Ford… Herman Jones was getting a card too.

“Good?” Juan asked me.

I nodded, glowing with renewed esteem. “I love them. Thank you so much.”

“I felt so bad for you,” Juan said licking the sticky rib sauce from his fingers. “I was like, how’m I gon’ tell this girl these pictures don’t make the grade?”

“Um—“ Juan put his hand on mine before I could give him the cash balance. “You planning on sending these out?”

“Your eyes flashed fire, Bill. I thought I saw smoke coming out your nose.” Juan was laughing. I sniffed at him before dissolving into laughter myself and kissing his rib sauce-smeared lips. Oh Juan.

“What do you mean?” I asked him that day in the printing shop two years ago, pissed off at his audacity. The nerve.

“No disrespect, Wilhelmina, it’s just – I’m a photographer. I develop all the stuff for Flatiron and manage the store. I sent my counter guy out for some grub.”

“When I told you I ran the shop, you looked at me again, like ‘alright, I’m listening.’”

It was true. I looked at him again, taking in the reed-thin, olive boy behind the counter. Faded Levi’s jeans and a Rawkus Records tee shirt hung off his bony frame. He had looked so young. 22 at the most.

“Look, I know you didn’t ask my opinion,” Juan continued that day, “but I think these pictures are… busted. I have about four years’ professional experience shooting and developing. I would love to show you my book. I can take pictures of you… for free… that will get you work. Look, I’m gonna throw these out. Here’s my card. My name’s Juan. Give me a call, Wilhelmina.”

For free? “Billa. All my friends call me Billa,” I told him. “Wait, let me give you another number.”

Juan handed me a pen. I scribbled my address and the number at Alain et Riette on the back of one the comp cards.

“How old are you,” I asked him.


I smiled. He wasn’t that much younger than me. Dimples puckered his lean face in a return smile. He was beautiful. We could make outrageously beautiful babies together, I decided when I pranced out of the shop, a whirl of hopeful periwinkle.

“Were they really that bad?” I asked him when we finished the rib tips.

“My pictures were hotter, Bill. Just like I promised, right?”

I kissed my boy – my ex-boy-friend now – when he said that because he always did keep his promises. And his pictures had gotten me a few catalog jobs and some fit work.

When I stepped out of the shop that morning, I came face-to-face with a wino who tried to steal my joy. He couldn’t.

“GIRL, YOU SO UGLY, YOU STOPPED MY HEART BEAT!” he shouted after me before collapsing into saliva dribbles.

I laughed too – not at him, but with him because it was not even noon and it had already been the best day of my life. I had more than the Plan. I had prospects, and I felt like they could lead to something real.

I remembered Abena Duncan’s letter folded in the Miu Miu clutch tucked under my armpit. Abena could come. After all, what? What did I have to be ashamed of? So I wasn’t living in a loft in SoHo. So I was paying to call myself a model and no agency had signed me. So what if I’d lived in the States for more than half a decade and didn’t have a degree. I was still B.B. Brick.

At least I wasn’t afraid of my dreams. So many of my mates from Mfantsiman were still stuck in Ghana waiting for something to happen to them, waiting for things to get better. The rich ones had flown to dreary, rainy London. I had heard from Fifi that our mates Joanna Nyarko and Hari Abebreseh were working as domestics and living in near squalor on Old Kent Road.

I walked to the apartment after canvassing the city’s modeling and talent agencies with my comp cards, reciting to myself my staggering list of qualities. I was stunning, confident, ambitious, sharp… What else did I need? Much more, apparently, but more on that later.


Abena came and went without incident. Then Auntie Freda moved and invited me to ride out her lease. I got promoted to store manager when Selima quit to move to Paris. Juan broke up with me without warning for his ex-girlfriend, his first love, who had moved back to the city from Miami where she had started her own clothing line. All through that change, not one agency called. I fell into a deep depression.

Somewhere in that awful year, two months after I had started living in Auntie Freda’s place alone, I got robbed – excuse me, “burglarized” as the 911 operator corrected me. The thieves/robbers/burglars, whatever you want to call them, skipped over my Joni Mitchell, Akosua Agyepong and Simon & Garfunkel CDs and took the Wu Tang and Brandy discs that had been on constant play in my player post- break-up. They also stole the gold name plate Juan had bought me for my birthday.

When the police arrived – 30 minutes after I’d called 911 – They couldn’t take fingerprints. The Fingerprinting Department was out sick and wouldn’t be back till Monday. They did show me where a bygone bullet had pierced the wooden frame of my bedroom window. “It’s a shame you got burgled on a Friday,” the officer shrugged. His partner told me it happened all the time in my neighborhood. They both marvelled it hadn’t happened sooner.

They walked me through it: 10 apartments were on each of the six floors of my building, and, “You figure, a family of about four lives in each one. There are eight identical buildings on this block. That makes it approximately 1,920 people living on one block. You can’t have that many people sharing a space without incident.”

There were a few plusses that year, though. Daddy sent me $1000 out of the blue. And Kweku came to visit. He cheered me up about the neighborhood and my life. He made me see that next to the closed down movie theater that advertised an ancient Martin Lawrence movie on the marquee, Korean grocers sold fresh cheap produce, Jamaican and Trinidadian chop bars lit up each block, and there were four banks within a 10 block radius even though none of the ATMs were accessible after 4:00pm.

“Where else can you find a locksmith, a dollar store, a $10 store, a shoe repair and a Chinese restaurant that serves fried plantains, fried chicken and curly cheese fries on one block?” Kweku asked me, laughing as he waited for the cab to pick him up and take him away to JFK. My little brother now lived in London where he was a barrister.

There was also the Blockbuster that made up for the defunct movie theater. In the evenings, the line at Blockbuster stretched as long as the New Releases section. I went to Blockbuster every night. I didn’t have cable, and I wasn’t working. In my awful year, I had quit the store one day when it was sunny outside and a customer – a photographer – had asked if I was a model.

There were no hard feelings when I left. I had sold Alain et Riette’s $800 shoes for nearly seven years. Even Alain could appreciate my need to move on.

“So we gonna see you in Vogue, baby?” he flirted with me.

I rattled my head up and down confidently. I’ve never had a problem with confidence.

Until I caught myself in the Blockbuster window that day, my hair was a lush frosted curtain, reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s sophisticated streak job in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. My jacket was Gap, but it looked like a Helmut Lang, which is why I’d bought it in the first place. My Levi’s fit like Earl jeans.

But after seeing myself for what I was in the Blockbuster window, I got it. I wasn’t special. I was a ‘Bush Girl – like every other girl walking down Flatbush Avenue.

That Sunday, I started going to church with Auntie Freda. She had been bugging me to go with her since she’d moved to Queens and I finally agreed because I needed some of God’s specialness to cover me again. Besides, I had nothing doing, and, once upon a time, in Ghana, I had been Born Again.

Now, I go every Sunday. I wake up at six and take the Q train to the F to Parsons Boulevard and make it on time for Highland Church’s 8:00am service. That early in the morning, the only thing I want to move is my remote control finger, but at least I have the free lunch at Auntie Freda’s to look forward to after service. I still send out my comp cards, but I’ve also started looking for a new job. My rent is cheap, but not much else is in this city.

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