All books about Rwanda that I have read so far had the Genocide at the centre of their narratives. Indeed, there isn’t much written about this country that would not concentrate solely on the tragic events of 1994. But there is so much more to Rwanda than that, and I am happy to say that Rosamond Halsey Carr’s memoir of her life in the Land of a Thousand Hills is one of the most extraordinary stories I have read.
Roz Carr was born in the United States in 1912 and worked as a fashion illustrator in New York City. In 1942 she married a charismatic English film maker, explorer and hunter Kenneth Carr, and in 1949 they travelled to Africa and settled in the Belgian Congo, near Lake Kivu. Their marriage was not happy though, and they eventually divorced but remained good friends for the rest of their lives. Rosamond moved across the border to Rwanda and for many years ran a plantation growing pyrethrum flowers (a type of chrysanthemum which is a natural insecticide) in Mugongo. She fell in love with the country and lived there until her death in 2006. She was evacuated during the 1994 Genocide but returned in July, just a couple of weeks after it ended, and set up an orphanage which is still operating.
This memoir is a truly captivating read. The style of writing is very down to earth and simple, with no embellishments or overly poetic statements (apart from some lovely descriptions of Rwanda’s stunning landscape), but engaging nonetheless. We get to meet a brave woman who doesn’t consider herself extraordinary at all – she just follows her instincts and gets on with life in a place she truly loves. It’s impossible not to like her. She writes about Africa from the point of view of a white American woman who marvels at the world around her and tries her best to make sense of it with a lot of humour and patience. It’s fascinating to read about her adventures (mischevious elephants devouring her flowers, wild dogs chasing her own dog into her courtyard, encounters with Batwa Pygmies, the original inhabitants of Rwanda, and many, many more) and get a personal account of Rwanda and Congo/Zaire while they were still colonies and then became independent states. Carr experiences those historical changes first hand, and despite many difficulties and tragedies, she never gives up and remains forever hopeful and positive. Fate is generally on her side – whenever things look miserable as a result of another political upheaval, she always falls on her feet. Many things happen to her by chance and she simply seizes those opportunities. Over the years she meets and makes friends with a great number of people, including the famous mountain gorilla researcher Dian Fossey (in the film Gorillas in the Mist, based on Fossey’s book, Roz Carr is portrayed by Julie Harris), foreign diplomats, eccentric plantation owners from Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, a Polish count and his Dutch wife… She also builds relationships with Rwandans, many of whom become her very close friends and associates. There is only one thing that never really worked out for her – she never got the chance to marry again and have children, which is what she really longed for. But there was a plan for her in this area, too. After the Genocide Carr returned to Rwanda, aged 82, determined to open an orphanage, and very soon became a surrogate mother to over 70 children.
The book was published in 2000 and at that time the situation in Rwanda was still volatile, as the afterword by Carr’s niece Ann Howard Halsey explains. It’s a very different place now and it was fascinating to read about how it changed over the decades. However, it’s important to bear in mind that this is a personal account of a person who wasn’t interested in politics – Roz Carr was interested in people. Her memories of events and crises are fragmented, it’s what she heard about or saw just a glimpse of rather than deep analyses of who, what and why. Carr’s main concern was always to keep her head above water and ensure the safety of her friends and her employees. Therefore it’s best not to treat this book as a the main source of information on topics like the roots of ethnic tensions in Rwanda or how the country functioned over the years. This is primarily a wonderful story of a humble and inherently good woman, a true humanitarian. Roz Carr died in 2006 but her legacy lives on – the Imbabazi orphanage she set up is thriving (you can read about it here: http://imbabazi.org/). I’m looking forward to visiting it soon!