Thomas Froese is an award-winning author and journalist of 25 years who has written widely about his experiences in the Arab World and Africa. He lived in Sana’a, Yemen, for several years, where he was a senior editor at The Yemen Times. Since 2005, he’s been based in Kampala, Uganda.
His columns on life and culture have appeared in various Canadian and international newspapers, often in the Hamilton Spectator. His column “Out of Africa” appears in Christian Week.
Thomas also has an award-winning book “Ninety-Nine Windows: Reflections of a Reporter from Arabia to Africa and other Roads Less Travelled.”
He lives in Hamilton, Ontario, for four months a year, and is married with three children.
Thomas Froese will speak at the Saturday afternoon keynote session of Write! Canada, on the topic, "Finding Joy in the Challenges."
Thomas, you began your career as a journalist and photographer at the St. Thomas Times Journal, in St. Thomas, ON, in 1989 and worked there until 2001. What intrigued you the most about working for that newspaper?
My years at the Times-Journal were years of growing up, both professionally and personally. The beauty of that kind of small daily paper is the variety. I was given a specific beat—I covered education news for some years—but also reported on municipal councils and health stories and the courts and the full range of community news. I was intrigued most by covering courts and also writing op-ed pieces.
My photography over the years and writing those brief op-ed pieces served me well when I left St. Thomas and began writing columns from overseas. In St. Thomas, the editors gave me freedom to write just about whatever I wanted: for example a train trip across the country, or Christmas fiction, or contentious stories relating to issues of faith. So while I was often anxious to move to a larger urban paper, the Times-Journal was a good professional home for those years.
Tell me about your decision to relocate to the Arab world and Africa with your family.
When I met Jean, she was signed with a mission to go to Yemen to help reduce the rate of women dying in childbirth. Having attended People’s Church in Toronto since childhood, she always had a heart for missions. My route was different. I joke that I listened to too much Keith Green. He sang things like, “Jesus commands us to go,” but I could never fully picture it.
While dating, Jean once asked, “Would you ever consider moving overseas?” I imagined carrying water in some dusty Yemeni village. “No,” I said. I knew my calling was to the media and could only imagine that mission in a Canadian context. But our relationship grew, and while visiting Jean in Yemen, I discovered an English newspaper, a paper where I could make a significant contribution. It seemed God was bringing us together in various ways.
After marriage in Canada, we were in Yemen for four years. Then, in 2005, with two young kids, we moved to Uganda to birth Jean’s brainchild organization, Save the Mothers.
We needed a host university, and Jean had some contacts in Uganda from previous work there. So Uganda Christian University became home of the STM training centre. And UCU became our personal home. We now live on campus with our three kids, including Hannah, a Ugandan we’ve adopted.
One of my contributions has been to launch UCU’s campus newspaper, the Standard, which is the only regularly-published university paper in Uganda. I was recently called the father of the newspaper, and I suppose that’s a good way to see my role.
You and your wife both have a heart for people in developing countries. How do you see God at work in your writing, journalism and editing in those locations?
Jean and I both have a heart for service through our vocational passions. The specific location—Yemen, then Uganda—has simply followed as circumstances and God’s Spirit have led.
As a Christian in Yemen—and a white Canadian in the Arab newsroom of the Yemen Times—I often had questions coming my way. Everyone just assumes if you’re from the West, you’re Christian. There was more openness to Christ among my Muslim colleagues than one might imagine. I can still recite conversations almost to the word. You have to keep in mind that Yemen has no exposure to Christianity, which is equated with everything Western. In Islam, religion and culture and politics are all one, so it’s hard for Muslims to see Christianity outside of, say, a sitcom they’ll see piped in from Hollywood.
Here in Uganda, in the heavily “Christianized” culture of East Africa, the challenge is the stifling religiosity that can permeate life. In Yemen, I wasn’t shy about writing to a Muslim audience about some basics of Christianity—to educate them on, say, Easter by writing about the movie The Passion. Likewise, in Uganda, I can also writing about basics of our faith. For example, at Easter, I can tell how Christ defeated the power of religiosity.
To what extent is writing also a ministry?
I think God can work in a writer to the extent that a writer can connect the dots of everyday life to God’s heart—His heart for freedom and justice. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist, just an observer who can slow down enough to listen.
I’m always encouraged to know that God himself is a story-teller. Jesus told stories, and we are part of His-story. I see this connect-the-dots process continuing in my fiction, although my fiction, which is yet to be published, has a stronger edge. It touches on how harsh life can be, not just in the developing world, but anywhere.
Tell me more about your fiction writing.
I am attracted to characters who are rather lost and cynical and broken. But God is in those disturbing stories too, redeeming those broken people, often when we can’t see it much. I feel very comfortable with a work of fiction ending without any, or with very limited “redemption” because that sort of thing usually doesn’t rise to the surface very much in real life. Not in the honest stories, anyway. Life is usually more opaque. Jesus often told stories this way. Take the brother of the prodigal, for example. Redeemed or not? It’s left open-ended so we can think about it.
What are some of the dangers for people working in Africa?
In Uganda, I contracted malaria several times, the worst being in January 2011. When treated early, malaria usually is not fatal. But this one hit me hard. I was on an intravenous in bed at home—going to a hospital in a case like this wouldn’t help. One does think more about life and death while living in a place like Africa.
Death, usually of Africans, is terribly familiar. Almost every day, one Ugandan or another tells us, “I’m going to a burial today.” The biggest ongoing danger, though—and this is true across the developing world—is the driving. Poor roads and poor vehicles and poorly trained drivers are all a lethal mix. A Ugandan once said to me, “Mr. Thom, we live by God’s grace.” It’s true. That particular gentleman, in fact, died in a traffic accident, as did the little girl who ran in front of him. Jean and I have escaped death or serious injury several times.
Has learning the language of another country been a difficulty? Or are you and your family able to converse in English or French?
In Yemen, I studied Arabic for some months, but was able to get by quite fine in the “English” speaking environment of the Yemen Times. The Times was an English paper put out by Arabs whose English wasn’t so hot. That’s why I could help so much. Jean, on the other hand, and all the expatriates we knew in Yemen, were heavily immersed in Arabic, often even before setting foot on the ground in the country—two years of full-time language study was common.
As a writer, the bigger issue for me has always been learning a new “cultural language” so I can write about cultural issues with some context. To prepare for Yemen I studied the history and culture of Islam. That was a tremendous help when, from Sana’a, I began writing columns for the Hamilton Spectator and the London Free Press. After leaving the Times-Journal, marrying Jean and moving to Yemen, those were the two Canadian papers I was freelancing for. I can’t emphasis enough how important those studies were for me in my adjustment, both personally and as a new correspondent.
Most Ugandans speak English or at least a form of it. Not surprisingly, there are still many things lost in translation—both linguistically and culturally. I can tell you some very funny stories. But we all get by somehow.
Thomas was interviewed by Write! Canada staff member Jenny Burr.