“Here’s a book written by a friend of Dian Fossey’s,” my sister said, adding to the stack of books under my arm at a bookstore just outside of Lake Louise. “I didn’t think she had any friends.”
Six months into her initial research on the northern slopes of Karisimbi, Congolese soldiers raided Dian Fossey’s camp and forced her down the mountain at gunpoint. On July 20, 1967, Rosamond Halsey Carr received a letter from Fossey via an American Ambassador requesting permission for her to continue her gorilla studies on the Rwandan side of Karisimbi. Carr owned a flower plantation at the base of the mountain in Mugongo, Rwanda. Days later Fossey arrived with her equipment and supplies and pitched a tent.
Land of a Thousand Hills is the intrepid story of Rosamond Carr’s life (a NY fashion illustrator), and it begins on July 9, 1949 when she sails out of Brooklyn Harbour on a cargo ship bound for Matadi, the Atlantic seaport of the Belgian Congo with her explorer husband, Kenneth.
Leaving with four new cotton dresses, a pith helmet, a lifetime supply of cold cream and their Irish terrier, Shelia, they could never anticipate what was about to unfold before them.
Exposed to “enough adventure to last several lifetimes,” Rosamond was certain that they would “both discover the happiness and passion” that had eluded the couple for so long, in the land that Kenneth loved so much.
Arriving in the Kivu, Kenneth and Rosamond rented a stone cottage with a rental agreement that stipulated they retain the existing staff of 14 servants: four water carriers for nonpotable water, two for drinking water, four woodcutters, two houseboys, a cook and his assistant. Kenneth tried to obtain permission from Belgian authorities to prospect for minerals, and as a desperate measure, accepted the offer of an Italian pyrethrum (daisy-like flower that contains a powerful insecticide) planter, Gino, to manage a plantation in the Congo.
“It appeared that we had a perfect life. We should have been very happy, but instead Kenneth and I were drifting further and further apart.” Their marriage quickly dissolved in the heavy rains that fell. Living 40 miles from the nearest town proved to be extremely isolating. Elephants trampled acres of the plantation in one night, and Banyaruanda “volunteers” worked when the spirit moved them. When Gino said he was taking a seven-month holiday in Europe and needed a plantation manager in Mugongo, Rosamond eagerly applied for the job. Kenneth was furious.
So began Rosamond’s bold stance in a country that she had already become emotionally rooted in. In the foothills of the Virunga Mountains, Carr writes vividly of leopard encounters, raising a dik dik (small antelope), bankruptcy, loneliness, draught and the murder of her friend, Dian Fossey. Her prose isn’t littered with adjectives when she describes the landscape of Rwanda and the Congo. The story of her life is profound enough that her emotions become more important than minute details. Readers are easily transported to the Buniole plantation, smiling at Carr’s stubborness, passion and bravery.
Rosamond Carr witnessed the political upheaval and tribal tension over the years, irritated with the constant friction on such a tranquil land. On April 6, 1994, when the plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot out of the sky as it descended from Kigali, killing President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi, five cabinet ministers and a crew of three, her cook Mikingo predicted Rwanda’s darkest hour. He told Carr, “This is the end of the world, Madame.” And it nearly was.
The day after the President’s assassination, Belgian soldiers ordered Carr to leave immediately, giving her five minutes to pack. She considered taking her dogs, but decided against it as she believed she was only being evacuated as far as Gisenyi for a couple of days. On April 11th, all foreign nationals were forcibly evacuated to Goma. Devastated, Carr left her beloved Rwanda. She numbly flew back to America, and remained paralyzed in front of the television, watching the coverage of the genocide. One missionary is reported to have said, “There are no devils left in hell—they are all in Rwanda.”
Extremist Hutu militia groups formed death squads and took to the streets. Power supplies were cut, drinking water became scarce and phone lines were down as the ethnic hatred by the Hutus towards the Tutsis exploded. The world turned a blind eye at the “systematic slaughter of all ethnic Tutsi,”culminated in the United Nations pulling out 270 “observers,” leaving the fate of Rwanda to those left on the ground. Sanctuaries like churches, schools, convents and orphanages where tens of thousands of Tutsi hid become hunting grounds. “Mutilated bodies clogged the Akagera River all the way to Lake Victoria.”
Two million Rwandans left their homes for refugee camps. “Cholera hit the camps like a medieval plague, people lay dying at a staggering rate. Eight thousand bodies were counted in two days.” In a few weeks, as many as 30,000 died from cholera and typhoid. The three-month reign of terror left a quarter of a million children lost or orphaned. The estimated death toll climbed to 800,000.
On August 10, 1994, at age 82, Carr found herself flying “back to the most dangerous place on earth.” A crazy idea of converting her old pyrethrum flower drying house into an orpahange occupied her mind, and she would make it happen.
Returning to her home in Rwanda, Carr hadn’t fully anticipated the “greatest heartbreak I have ever known.” Everything had been stolen, even the kerosene refridgerator. The water pipes had been ripped from the walls, the toilet was overflowing with a vile stench, even the plumbing fixtures had been stolen. Her moment of grief turned to elation as she heard the barks of Freddie and Tiffany, the dogs she had left behind when evacuated. Kim, her 14-year-old Siamese welcomed her back too, with a scolding meow. “Discovering my pets alive and in desperate need of love and care was my salvation. That was perhaps the defining moment, when my thoughts turned from leaving in defeat, to believing that I had a reason to stay.”
In December of 1994, Carr opened the Imbabazi Orphanage where she sheltered 120 children. She died September 29, 2006, at age 94 in Gisenyi, Rwanda. She was buried at the Mugongo flower farm, in the shadow of the Virunga Volcanoes. The orphanage remains as a legacy to the triumph and compassion of an extraordinary woman who embraced an eviscerated Africa, selfessly devoting the last 12 years of her life to the children of Rwanda.
For information on A Mother’s Love & A Lifetime in Rwanda, a documentary production by Standfast Productions, Ltd., visit: http://standfastproductions.com/index.phtml
Rosamond Carr’s Memorial Service: http://standfastproductions.com/MemorialClip.phtml
Land of A Thousand Hills– My Life in Rwanda
by Rosamond Hall Carr with Ann Howard Halsey
Plume, Penguin Books, NY (1999)