As Covid-19 prepares for its Great American breakout tour, Detroit-based artist and healer, Tafari Stevenson-Howard, boards a plane to Ghana to continue a journey started a year earlier in Brazil, where he spent of a month traveling between the cities of Salvador Bahia and Rio de Janeiro.
It’s a winding tale that peaks with a haunting vision and breaks off with some ominous advice and a giant crystal, before finally bringing him home—to a country he’s known his whole life and another he’s always remembered. Out of a powerful trip, Sankofa Passport is born, and a small business is launched during a time of global unrest and financial chaos.
This is the story of how a Detroit-based flight attendant turned healthcare worker turned photographer who becomes a curator and importer of West African goods—literally overnight.
A FEW MONTHS EARLIER IN DETROIT
On the edge of winter, coming off Valentine’s day, I stepped into Tafari’s home for the first time. The occasion is an all-night sound immersion—or sound bath—that takes place in his finished basement, lending a sort of high school party to the evening. Which is extra special, considering this is a group of mostly thirty and forty somethings.
If you’re not familiar with the sound bath concept, it’s pretty much how it sounds. Tafari, plays a combination of crystal and metal Tibetan singing bowls, while a group of people lay before him in the corpse position, eyes closed, bathed in waves of sound. Think combination yoga class-slumber party, with the perfect amount of blankets and pillows.
And if that sounds like the dumbest thing ever, allow me to clarify: you’re wrong. It’s fucking delightful. The experience can be best described along a spectrum of ‘Whoa. Where did I go?!” to “Wow! That was a refreshing nap.” Plus, Tafari always provides snacks at the end. Tonight it’s a home cooked meal of stuffed tater tots with black beans, onions and peppers, topped with cotija cheese, avocado and cilantro.
In addition to sound healer, Tafari’s a devoted father of two, a seasoned yoga practitioner and a professional photographer. And a damn fine chef.
Right now, he’s standing over a hot stove, recalling a crazy week of photoshoots and extra shifts as a substitute teacher. In a few weeks, he departs for Africa. It’s his first trip to the continent, and he’s got a lot to pack in.
The night’s sound bath goes extra deep with some magic plant fortification, cleansing chakras and psyches. It finishes with a revival meal at 2am of arguably the most crispiest, most delicious tater tots ever. Guests pop into the kitchen for seconds and thirds, before falling back into their respective sections of the living room, drowsy and satiated.
The clock strikes 3am. Some will crash here. Others will make their way home, sooner, hopefully, than later.
INTO THE BRAZILIAN RAINFOREST
Tafari provides sound healing during plant ceremonies, specifically ayahuasca and rapè.
“It was during an ayahuasca ceremony that I had a vision,” Tafari tells me.
“The vision initially was me rocking. I either was rocking, or I felt like I was rocking. There was this movement going on with my body. It didn’t feel voluntary—at all…I was just moving.
“As I was going through this experience, everything within my mind’s vision had a red film over it. Next thing you know, I’m starting to see black bodies—stacked. Then I see black women, all red—they’re black, but they’re red. And it became very clear: I’m on a slave ship.
I’m surrounded by my ancestors.
“There was never talking. I just saw these still bodies and these still faces of black women. At that point, I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m in a full trip right now. I’m going to let this process.’ But that theme continued to carry—of ancestors and movement.”
A FEW DAYS LATER
Tafari’s in a sweat lodge when his third eye blows open and he starts having “very vivid visions.” This time a native man comes to him and just stares him in the face.
“I felt my soul. It was so piercing and beautiful—something I had never experienced or felt before. I was extremely overcome with emotions.”
A few days later, en route from Salvador Bahia to Rio, his friend Florian’s driving him to the airport when he out-of-nowhere asks Tafari if his third eye opened in the sweat lodge. Which is strange because Tafari hadn’t shared either vision—the women or the man—with anyone.
There’s a pause in their conversation and then Tafari starts to cry.
“I couldn’t stop,” Tafari says. “The tears were just flowing through me like a river, about the two experiences. And I said ‘I need to go back to Africa.’ And when I say go back, I mean from an ancestral point. I’ve never been to Africa, but really, I had to go back to Africa.”
As Tafari’s steps out of the car, Florian hands him a necklace and says “You will go home. When you go home, I want you to wear this necklace.”
This necklace is made of red coral beads from Ghana and was a gift from a mutual friend to Florian. Now it’s Tafari’s turn to receive its medicine.
“It was like a fucking movie. I put the necklace on. I’m walking into the terminal with my two bags. Tears are still coming down my eyes.”
TRACING BACK GENERATIONS
Tafari follows his paternal line to Nigeria. That’s the destination. His first stop is a conversation with a friend in Ghana. His advice? “Come here.” Nigeria is an eight-hour drive. We’ll make it a road trip.
“So I got my Ghanaian visa,” Tafari explains. “I got my yellow fever shot. I got my malaria pills. And a plan was made.”
He reaches out to a few yoga studios to see about doing sound meditation. Bliss Yoga Accra, the second oldest studio in the country, gets back to him immediately. He makes plans to speak with the owner, Nana, the next day.
“We talked as if we had been friends forever. I had a beautiful conversation. She welcomed me with open arms, asked me what I wanted to do. I told her, and she said, let’s do it. There was never a question. Yeah, she just said, let’s do it. From there, everything started to fall into place.
I’m not a rich man. I’m a professional photographer, an artist by trade. That’s how I earn my income. But when I started to make this plan, it was amazing how things started to manifest and materialize financially. By January, I had all the money I needed to book my ticket to book my accommodations and set forth.”
BACK TO FEBRUARY
The year 2020 was set to be a big one. It was the year Tafari was going home. He didn’t know it was a year that would change his life so quickly and drastically.
Weeks after the midnight sound bath, over whispers of an impending sickness from abroad, Tafari leaves for Accra.
“I left for Ghana, March 8th. While I was there, things were starting to bubble up here in the United States. I was not tuning to the news. I was hearing everything from my friends. And then, I was hearing it from people on the ground in Ghana. Towards the end of the month, I started paying attention to the news.
“And I was like, Oh, my God, this is like crazy. I’m not coming back to the United States. I was preparing to not come back. The day I was going to extend my trip a little bit longer was the same day that they started canceling flights out and into Ghana. That changed everything.”
Ghana was supposed to be a detour on the way to Nigeria. Fate, however, has a mysterious way of getting us to where we need to be: In Tafari’s case, that place is Ghana.
Shortly after his arrival, Tafari’s friend has passport issues and their road trip to Nigeria is canceled.
“He was actually in limbo himself waiting to leave Ghana. If he left he wouldn’t be able to get back to the country. So I had to nix the whole Nigerian piece of the trip, which was the main thing. But with that said, I was able to flip that around and really have a robust and rich experience in Ghana. I was able to travel to various regions and reach out to people.
When I started noticing things were getting shaky, it was like ‘Oh my god, I need to earn some funds’ because I may be having a suspended journey in Ghana. So that’s when I started getting into doing some trading. I started forming relationships with a lot of artists— textile artists, jewelry artists.”
The year was 2012. “Everything,” Tafari recalls, was going crazy. “And I kept telling myself ‘Remember what made you strong. What made you weak? Bring it forth, fix it and bring it forth.”
He had Sankofa tattooed onto his arm. It’s a beloved Ghanaian Andinkra symbol that depicts a bird with its head facing backward and translates into English from the Twi language to “go back and get it.” The tattoo’s a permanent reminder to fix it and bring it forth.
Five years later, in 2017, he would be asked to bring it forth again when he had a breakdown at work.
“Before I got into an ambulance, they stripped my shirt off at my desk. I was screaming at the top of my lungs. I was crying. I thought my heart was gonna jump out of my chest. I was calling for my mother. I thought like it was the end.
At the end of the day, it wasn’t a heart attack. It was a fucking panic attack and a mental breakdown. I was off work for six months. I worked at the University of Michigan Health System. I had a good job. Making good money.
While I was off, I started doing the work. That’s when I moved into my yoga practice. I was seeing a therapist every week. I had to take medication to control my emotions. But then I started finding healing practices, traditional healing practices that helped me transition off medication.”
These healing practices brought Tafari to Brazil in 2018 for a nude yoga retreat. It’s what led him to sound healing and to Ghana.
As nations across the globe enter lockdown, Tafari catches the last plane out of Accra as the borders close to Detroit.
It’s a bittersweet affair. Ghana feels like home. He’s going to miss the friends who opened their homes to him when his flights were canceled—one after the other—and he didn’t know where he would stay. But he also misses friends and loved ones in Detroit, who are waiting on the goods they purchased.
What started as a way to earn some extra cash, has overnight turned into a full-fledged retail operation. He spends his bonus time in Ghana creating a network of artists and suppliers for his newly formed Sankofa Passport shop.
On his final day in the country, a table full of crystals catches his eye. He has to have them. All of them. They’re the biggest, most luminous crystals he’s ever seen. The problem is the vendor doesn’t take credit, and Tafari doesn’t have cash.
So he introduces himself and explains his situation to the vendor, an antiquities dealer named Big Papa. If Tafari can take the crystals now, he’ll wire the money when he gets back to the States. It’s a lot to ask, considering there’s several hundred dollars at stake. No matter. Big Papa agrees.
As promised, Tafari pays his invoice in full as soon as he gets home, and Big Papa sends more crystals, with Tafari paying each invoice when he sells the goods.
This arrangement helps Big Papa reach a larger network and Tafari start a new business with limited capital. When he left for Ghana, it wasn’t with the intention of starting a new business. He wasn’t prepared for the complete shakeup of a global pandemic.
Neither were his collaborators in Ghana, whose livelihoods draw heavily from tourism. Sankofa Passport shop started as a side hustle and emerged as a way for friends in two countries to help each other through hard times.
For Tafari’s friend, Selom, it’s been a lifeline.
The two designed a collection of kimonos, making fabric choices in real time via WhatsApp. Before they finished, Selom and his partner lost their newborn baby. The project was put on hold, so the family could mourn.
“The sales of the things we made were able to support him and his girlfriend.”
Back in Detroit, the Sankofa Passport shop provides a connection to Ghana to those who can’t make the trip.
“What Sankofa Passport means to people is that they have a portal to connect with Africa culturally. Specifically, West Africa, where most black Americans hail from ancestrally.
This year, during the Pandemic, there was re-emergence of a racial uprising in the country and people felt more empowered. They felt that it was important to express that they are proud to be black—proud to look black, sound black, feel black.
A lot of the items I carry deal with blackness specifically. And people know they’re supporting people on the continent of Africa.
More importantly, they’re supporting someone who is helping to push the culture. They’re supporting someone who they trust. They’re supporting someone who they know will be ethical with their processes, and how they interact, and also provide a high-end experience for some things that people really want, from custom clothing items to beads to crystals to fabrics, etc.”
To date, most of Tafari’s sales have been through social media, mainly Instagram, where he announces new drops and guests can DM to purchase items, including crystals, clothing and an assortment of jewelry. He also hosts ZOOM trunk shows, for those looking for an intimate experience in the pandemic-age.
Last week he set up shopping on his website, Sankofa Mind + Body.
He still offers private session sound baths. Every now and then, social followers are invited to a secret, and social distanced, happening.
WHERE CAN PEOPLE FIND YOU?
ON IG: @sankofamindandbody (meditation), @iamhuskybae (photography and lifestyle)
ON TWITTER: @sankofamindandbody
ON FB: Sankofa Mind and Body
CV Henriette is an Astrologer, writer, and owner of Art of the Zodiac, which specializes in self-care for the Astro-friendly, as well as Astrological Chart readings, and much more. Check out her website at artofthezodiac.co, and be sure to follow her on Instagram at @art_of_the_zodiac.