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Q&A: Sarah Fretwell on Building Human Connections through Storytelling

Multimedia storyteller Sarah Fretwell looks deep into the intersection of the environment, people, and business with one question: “What if…
Q&A: Sarah Fretwell on Building Human Connections through Storytelling
Sarah Fretwell on the remote runway of Amboseli National Park in Kenya just outside of the community of Esiteti with bags full of food, gear, and 100 pounds of prenatal vitamins care from Vitamin Angels. Photo Credit: Evelyn Turner

Multimedia storyteller Sarah Fretwell looks deep into the intersection of the environment, people, and business with one question: “What if the new bottom line was love?” Her award-winning work explores the lives of everyday people with extraordinary stories and engages people on a personal level. Her stories offer individuals a voice for justice, insight for solutions, and the human connection needed for international engagement. Some of her notable work and clients include the United Nations, USAID, The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, and Tara Expeditions Foundation.

Storyhunter: Can you tell us about the Beads of Esiteti, the organization you worked with on your multimedia project?

Sarah Fretwell: Beads of Esiteti is a business dedicated to social good for the Esiteti communities in Kenya and is r​un by an amazing woman, Shauna Mistretta. With a background in fair trade, she saw an opportunity to bring their handcrafted beads to a global market. In the past eight years the tribe’s business has earned over $100,00 through their joint efforts. They are now also producing goods for private designers and brands all around the world. Not only is the business allowing them to make money while continuing a cultural tradition, the income has helped enable all the kids in the village to attend school.

Half of the money from the beads is put into funding the Esiteti school​ ​supported by their nonprofit partner Africa Schools of Kenya (ASK) and the rest goes into a merry-go-round business loan model that allows women to use the money to begin their own small business. Once the loan is paid back, that money is used for another woman’s business. With increased access to health care education​ ​through ASK, the tribe has agreed amongst themselves to end the tradition of “cutting” (FGM) and they are now performing an alternative rite of passage for the girls. They realize their girls are more valuable to the community when they are educated and they now have the opportunity to marry later or even go on to secondary studies. It is really amazing to witness the positive impact this business has had on the community in giving them a choice in how they modernize.

Some of the women who produce handcrafted goods for Beads of Esiteti. Photo Credit: Sarah Fretwell

Storyhunter: How did you get involved in this project?

SF: I was in Ethiopia on a virtual reality project with another “business for good.” I was in touch with Shauna and learned about the unique opportunity to visit Esiteti not as a tourist, but as someone collaborating with them on their business. I really want to support other women in the world with my work and I jumped at the chance for such incredible access. I flew into a remote runway in the middle of Amboseli National Park and a Maasai elder, James, was there to escort us to Esiteti village. The village is located inside the national park surrounded by elephants, lions, and other wild animals.

I learned about how critical their story is because drought as a result of climate change is making it difficult to survive — changing the Maasai way of life forever. Water sources are drying up, killing the wild animals like elephants and the Maasai cattle. The community has been doing some serious thinking and since so many cows have been dying, they decided to shift their planning and spending to focus on sustainable ventures, which includes opening a small local market and continuing to sell beads on the world market. Being the majority income winners has empowered these women, they are being given a new level of respect and more of a voice in community decisions. We were there to document the community, the production process, and collect images and video for the year to use on their website and social media.

Storyhunter: As an outsider, how do you earn a subjects’ trust?

SF: I like to build a relationship with the people I am creating a story around, especially in sensitive situations where you need to build a level of trust. Even when I am hired by a well known nonprofit or publication to create a story, there is a level of respect and permission that needs to be clearly obtained (and respected when people decline) before I start shooting. I would be really upset if someone showed up on my doorstep with a camera and just started filming me while they introduced themselves without ever being given a choice in participating.

The most important thing is connecting with the humanity in the people I meet, learning what they need me to understand about their life, and the feeling they walk away with in the end. That is the most important part. If it is a negative experience for them, I have missed the point entirely because my goal is to build understanding so the viewer feels the common threads that make us human. I always develop the relationship first and, without a doubt, an authentic and impactful story will flow from that place. I spoke with Shauna beforehand about what I wanted to shoot. James, the Maasai elder, helped us understand what was appropriate, set up meetings with people, and he assisted as our translator when necessary.

James, the Maasai elder, who was our guide, helps distribute the prenatal vitamins we brought, explaining when and how to use them. Photo Credit: Sarah Fretwell

Storyhunter: How did you approach interviews in the community?

SF: It is so important to respect people’s time and when we are translating it can be a slow process. It requires a lot of patience and well planned relevant questions. Any time interviewees are spending with me is time they are taking away from the things they need to do that day to survive — like getting water and taking care of their animals. I want to acknowledge what they have given to me as valuable, so I try to find ways to give back like donating to the local school or buying beads. In Esiteti we stayed with the locals who hosted us continually so it was important to bring our own food (and food to share) and give back because people spent a lot of time to host us. It is reciprocal. The more positive energy and genuine kindness you give (not charity) the more of an authentic connection you get in return.

Storyhunter: Why did you want to stay with the locals?

SF: When I enter a community, I have better access when I stay with them. It’s not as comfortable because I may be sleeping on a dirt floor and I don’t get down time, but it so valuable to be a part of the action and I get a much deeper understanding of what life is really like. When I was working in Esiteti, we stayed with one of the school teachers, Betty. She insisted on giving us her only bed, she slept on a mattress on the floor, and we all stayed in her one room home that included our kitchen, food, 100 pounds of vitamins we delivered for Vitamin Angels, and all of our gear. Her kind offering gave us immediate access into daily life. It meant that right at 5AM I was a part of the morning routine, the whole scene unfolded organically in front of me, and I got to experience it. It gave me a much broader perspective than only being there several hours a day.

The center of the manyatta — a small circular compound of stick-and-mud huts around the outside protecting, the dirt center that serves as a pen for cattle, sheep and goats. Photo Credit: Sarah Fretwell

Storyhunter: As a female journalist, how do you think you were perceived by the community?

SF: There would be points in every conversation where someone would inevitably ask if I was married, where my husband was, how many kids I have…and how was I allowed to be there alone (without my husband). Most of our conversations were full of laughter as we made jokes and tried to explain new concepts. Betty, the schoolteacher, brought us in to talk to the kids in high school. Betty is living as a “modern Maasai” (she dresses in western clothes and works full time as a teacher). She told us how valuable it is for these girls and boys to see that there are many tracks that you can take in life. They asked me what my village looked like and I tried to explain what a neighborhood is. They wanted to know how many cows I owned and they were shocked when I told them I didn’t own any cows. We had conversations about how we date and get married in the U.S. (marrying for love versus an arranged marriage). Betty wanted her students to know they can do whatever they want. They can educate themselves, travel to another country alone, or they can choose to stay in the place of their upbringing. Every choice is beautiful; she just felt it is important for them to know that they have a choice.

Schoolgirls in class at the Esiteti school, many of whom will be a part of the first generation to undergo the alternative right of passage and complete their schooling. Photo Credit: Sarah Fretwell

Storyhunter: Do you feel like these conversations had an effect on the community?

SF: They had an effect on both sides, but maybe more on us! What stays with me is the endless hours of laughter ringing through the air and the connection in their community with nature and each other. James, the Maasai elder, literally told us, “the elephants will be in this area around 2PM because they prefer the salty grass.” And a few school children who walk from another village told us they had to watch out for lions as they walked to school in the early twilight hours.

There is an incredible connection to the rhythms of the natural world and so much pride in the traditions of their culture. Even though children were so curious about the animals we have and how we live, it really felt like the consensus was that they preferred the way of life and food they were used to. There is a striking beauty to the simplicity of life. We wanted to acknowledge there is so much beauty in what they already have.

At the same time, people have to walk hours to get drinking water (and it may not even be potable), they live in increasingly harsh conditions, and it is a struggle as Kenya develops around them, if they have no money. At the end of the day we want the same things: to have a stable life (food and shelter), to be happy, and to be able to provide even more opportunity for the next generation. We all had so much to learn about one another; these conversations are so important because we create mutual understanding and bridge boundaries with curiosity and compassion.

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By Lena Drake, Storyhunter Writer