When people enter African Drums And Art Crafts, located on the southern perimeter of Toronto’s Kensington Market, owner Saikou Saho is deliberate about how he greets them.
Saho said he doesn’t like the phrase, “Can I help you?” Instead he usually opts for “Hello, how are you doing?” Because he genuinely wants to know.
“When people come, you have to acknowledge them, be present with them,” Saho said as he sat on the elevated platform that is the epicentre of the shop, where drummaking, performances, workshops and social gatherings converge.
Surrounding this quasi-stage and filling out the rest of the space are djembes, dun duns, finger pianos, sculptures, masks, greeting cards, clothing, jewelry, soaps, trinkets and more, which are displayed on the many shelves, mounted on the walls or grouped into piles on the floor. It’s a bit chaotic.
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“People who aren’t organized compensate by having a good memory,” Saho said.
There are many products for sale, but the shop is not just a shop, and Saho is much more than a proprietor. Most significantly, it’s a space for community, and Saho is its steward.
“I’m just the guardian of a space. This space is a museum. It’s a community centre. It’s a healing centre. It’s a shop, we sell products. But the part I’m most proud of is the healing side,” Saho said.
Saho first opened the shop — originally located in another spot in the neighbourhood — in 1998. Before then, he worked for the Toronto Transit Commission servicing vehicles and streetcar tracks. He was also a wholesale supplier of djembes and djembe-building materials, including skins, which he would bring back from his visits to Africa.
Saho said he noticed that most of the stores in Toronto that he supplied to “were very country-based.” He saw an opportunity and conceived of a pan-African space that would showcase the continent.
“[There was] a Kenyan store, Ugandan store, Somali store, Ethiopian store … So then I said it’d be good to have an African store,” he said.
Ever since, Saho has been in high demand, both inside and outside the shop. He has led countless djembe workshops and events in partnership with organizations such as Afrofest, the Toronto District School Board, VIBE Arts and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
When he’s not facilitating events off-site, Saho can usually be found at the shop — but it’s difficult to get a moment alone with him. All day, people come and go. Some come to browse, or to partake in the popular Friday-night drum circle (no experience necessary), or to learn how to build a djembe.
“You can come and make your own drum. I like that program,” Saho said. “It’s very spiritual … it forces you to go within yourself and pull the best you out, that’s what building the djembe does.”
Others come to just say hello. Some stay for hours to chat or just hang out. Here, time is a construct. There is no need to rush.
That is by design. From the outset, Saho envisioned the shop as a space for people to talk to one another, in which everyone is free to stay for as long as they please.
“The concept is you can go to the store and sit down and talk to people about your good days and your terrible days, where nobody says, ‘Can I help you, get out.’”
Saho said half-jokingly that he’s “trying to do social work at the same time as selling a drum.” He is, indeed, a confidante to many people who have found a sanctuary in his shop.
When asked why so many people have come to entrust him with their troubles, Saho points to his upbringing. He said both his parents were healers. At his childhood home in Demba Kunda, The Gambia, there were often people in need of some kind of help.
“We had a clinic in town, [people] would pass the clinic and come to see my mother with their babies. They trusted my mother better than the hospital,” he said.
It’s no secret that in Canada, mental-health support is unobtainable for many people, especially those who are marginalized. What Saho has built is a refuge for everybody and anybody, including those who have few other places to go.
“There are so many people who have nobody listening to them. We should [all] have a place that we know is not too far from us,” Saho said.
“Community to me is where everybody has a place to go to.”
He said that in addition to listening, the key to creating a safe environment is not casting judgments.
“I think this is our own fear, mostly, when we get down on others,” Saho said.
“I mean, thoughts come to mind, that’s just human nature. But when you act on those thoughts, that’s your own projection. Because this person now has nothing to do with that. This is what I’m trying to learn. Because you know we have biases, we all do. I’m working on it. I don’t let those things come between me and anybody.”
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