On dragons, Bilbo Baggins, and My Bride’s honorary doctorate

The thing about dragons is that you have to believe they exist before you can go and slay them. And even after you believe, you have to somehow care. It’s much easier to let any old dragon open its mouth and breathe its fire and destroy what it may while you leave the poor villagers to their own wits, providing, of course, the dragon isn’t in your backyard.

This is why Bilbo Baggins is such a beloved hobbit. Because his backyard is rather pleasant and there is no dragon there and he doesn’t really want to go anywhere and, really, who can blame him?

He only gets wrestled into it all after those party guests show up at his front door, walking in one at a time, uninvited, filling his entire hobbit hole of a house – and it was a rather comfortable little hobbit house – with the craziness of what only such dwarves can do, namely eat his favourite food and play his best utensils and make rude and vulgar noises as if they own the place.

“You’ve been sitting quietly for far too long,” is what old Gandalf tells him after the dwarves finish tossing and turning both Bilbo’s house and his spirit. “Tell me, when did doilies and your mother’s dishes become so important to you?”

Bilbo pleads, “I can’t just go running off into the blue! I am a Baggins, of Bag End!”

But you know it’s too late and that somehow his heart has been captured.

And when you see the hobbit then running down the path singing and yelling about the unknown adventure unwinding in front of him, you’re reminded we all have our own adventures and even if we sort of just fall unplanned into them, that’s not a bad thing either.

It was a long time ago, sometime between when she graduated from kindergarten and medical residency, when My Bride decided she would set off and at least stare down and pull her sword and strike the horrible dragon of maternal death a couple of times, and that this would make a difference for at least some of the many thousands of women who to this day die in childbirth in far off places like Africa.

My route into it all was a little more like Bilbo’s.

But yesterday, while receiving an Honorary Doctorate and giving an address at the 106th Convocation of the University of Waterloo, My Bride made the point that big missions can be born even in little hobbit holes. Yes, even the greatest of missions have small beginnings.

I too have found this. No, nobody should feel that such smallness rules out the strange truth of it all, that if you give it enough space, if you don’t quench it, if you don’t hold on to it too tight, then even when you’re not looking your life can lead you just about anywhere.

The children were there too, in the front row, to cheer on their mother. You don’t get a day off of school for any old reason. So these kids, clearly among the youngest souls in the crowd, will remember. Long after the gowns are pressed and the mortarboards are hung up, long after all those words are forgotten, they’ll remember that something special happened on that day.

With any amount of luck, they might even figure out that it somehow had something to do with their own adventures, their own dragons of tomorrow, and that way of mystery: that they should hold on dearly to life, but not too dearly.

If you now want to read My Bride’s entire convocation address, it follows here:

About Thomas Froese

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Chancellor  Watsa, President Hamdulaphur,  graduands, parents, and honoured guests.

Thank you so much for the honour of this Doctor of Laws degree.  I receive it in honour and in memory today of the 287,000 mothers and four million babies who die as a result of unsafe motherhood around the world.  It has been my privilege to be part of the voices who have begun to raise global attention and support to save some of these vulnerable mothers and their babies.  Today, they are the true heroes around the globe–the  mothers who die every day while doing something as natural as bringing new life into the world.

Thank you so much for the privilege of sharing this day with you.   I’m grateful to the many people who have been part of my being here: colleagues here at University of Waterloo as well as colleagues from  McMaster University and the Uganda Christian University, including Dr Ned Kanyesigye who is here today from Uganda. All of these people who have played an important role in my international work.  In particular, I would like to acknowledge Dean Susan Elliott and all her faculty and staff in Applied Health Sciences for this honour and the strong support that they have given to the Save the Mothers’ program at UCU.    Like many of you graduands, I’m grateful for close friends, my parents and siblings who have been my cheerleaders throughout the 12 years of my own university education.  Of course, I want to say a special thanks to my very supportive journalist husband Thomas Froese and our three young children, Elizabeth, Jonathan and Hannah.  We’re all in this together as a family living in Uganda for the majority of the year.  They are very much part of me living out the dream that I have had and that is to work to help mothers and their babies in the developing world.

Dreams are why we are here today.   Dreams are the bridge between the present and the future.   It was the dream of people like Gerald Hagey, Ira G. Needles and Reverend Cornelius Siegfried some 56 years ago to start this innovative university.  It was your dream, graduand, to start your education at this university and to see it through to this day.

I think of the dream of a young African man where I live and work, who completed his Master of Public Health Leadership degree with the Save the Mothers program at Uganda Christian University. His name is Ivan.  His dream is that no mother or child should die in his community. He is the mayor for 50,000 people in a rural area of Uganda. I remember standing with him as the casket of Fatima, a dear Ugandan Mother who was hoisted over our heads – she had died delivering her ninth child – using his education and influence in the community. Ivan began dreaming  of a day when mothers and their babies would no longer perish of preventable pregnancy complications. Through his studies, he had learnt that in his country of Uganda, with the  same population as Canada, at least 6000 mothers die of pregnancy complications in a single year.  To give you perspective, in any given year about a dozen Canadian mothers will die.

By using his political power and business connections, Ivan has since had a new maternity centre built in his region. Before, women had to travel miles to get medical care in delivery, often a distance that was deadly as in Fatima’s case since she had no money for the local bus. I can assure you there is no 911 in that part of the world. But Ivan has a dream, and he continues to work to ensure that women are cared for and protected, even starting a program to protect Ugandan mothers from violence in the home, an all too accepted part of that rural culture.  Ivan is living the Save the Mothers dream.  In fact, in the last eight years since the Save the Mothers program was birthed, more than 250 indigenous leaders have been trained as safe motherhood advocates in East Africa to bring about lasting change in their communities.

You might ask what can I do to really make a difference?  I’d encourage youto think about the saying that I recently heard and that is “All great missions start in Hobbit holes”.  Of course, it refers to Tolkien’s book and movie ‘the Hobbit’ where the home-loving hobbit involuntary hosts a party for band of dwarves.  The challenge is put forward by Gandalf to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from the dragon.  By the end of the evening, the hobbit, who was previously just living in his little home filled with his mother’s antique dishes has taken on the great mission to serve in this expedition. He had caught the vision.   The lesson is that the greatest of missions often have very simple beginnings.  They start in Hobbit holes.

We are in the present. As a former female president of Norway said:  “Dreams are the bridge between the present and the future”.  Your dream is that bridge that will take you to your future.  What will that future look like?  Many of you will have heard the great dream of someone like Martin Luther King as he said, ” I have a dream, that one day all men will be free”. His dream was part of the bridge that led to the future, the future as we now know it today, one where Martin Luther King’s dream is more fully realized though not yet perfect.

What is your dream? I don’t doubt that the dreams of the graduands in this room are limitless, but let me encourage you that though the potential is limitless, the most fulfilling dreams are those who improve the lives of those who are vulnerable, who can’t speak for themselves. To look in the eyes of those whom you have helped, who can never repay you but simply look up and say ‘ thank you Mayor Ivan for protecting me and saving my life.’   There couldn’t be a greater feeling in the world.

As I reflect on the fact that in the 21st century,  women die from easily preventable complications of pregnancy, it is only unbelievable.  It is the ultimate call for justice in response to the biblical proverb:  “speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute”.  Who is more destitute than a mother who in our generation with all of its marvellous technology and medical advances, the mother who bleeds to death after delivering her baby on the floor of her hut with no one to care for her as she brings life into our world.

But the dream to move from where we presently are to where we should be, that includes ensuring the basic human rights of the most vulnerable on our globe,  takes commitment, endurance and especially new and creative thinking: an important foundation to the success of this university and I think also the success of the Save the Mothers’ program, training non-medical professionals such as politicians, journalists, social scientists, religious leaders and teachers to be advocates for changing culture and systems to bring a safer environment for mothers and their babies in East Africa.

Today is a day that you dream and fly above the clouds. You get the big perspective.  But it’s also a day of putting one step in front of the next, of keeping your feet on the ground on the journey and moving toward the destination.  Above the clouds we think about the future: how do I make my dream become a reality on the ground?  It comes by working work and working together in various partnerships to make that dream a reality.

Let the vision you have today, even if it begins in a simple hobbit hole, become the bridge to a better future for those you love and those you may never meet but whose lives you have changed forever.

3 Comments

  1. Steve and Pam Wise June 13, 2013 at 8:05 am

    You are an inspiration to us, both of you. Our son, Jonathan, who Thomas might remember from our C&C days, has a young female friend who would like to come to Uganda and work with Jean in an internship. How can we facilitate that?

  2. Sally Phoenix June 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    What a beautifully written and inspiring message. It certainly helps me know how to pray for you. I don’t believe I am on your news letter list. If that is the case, please add my name. Blessings on you and the family.

  3. Eve.N.Sioga July 14, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    Commitment,endurance and creative thinking; this is what we have seen in the Froese family as they serve the most vulnerable of people in Africa and beyond.

    Thank you so much for practicing what you preach,i have seen this firsthand.

    So proud of the great work you are doing. God richly bless you.

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