Land of a Thousand Hills (Ruanda)

book coverRosamund Halsey Carr’s life was profoundly changed by a small breeze that blew a man’s red hat off his head and across the road.

The man was a hitchhiker. Rosamund and her husband were driving away from their life in the Belgian Congo on their way back to New Jersey. They had given up on Africa.

But when they stopped the car to fetch the hitchhiker’s hat, it would not start again.

They learned it would take two months to get replacement parts and fix the car. although they eventually divorced, they stayed in Africa. That changed everything.

Colonialist Caveats

Rosamund and kids
Roz founded Imbabazi Orphanage on her plantation at Mugungo in 1994. It’s still in operation.

Rosamund Carr was an extraordinary person. She stayed on her plantation through the genocide, protecting all the Hutu and Tutsi workers she could, even facing down machete-wielding thugs by telling them “Go ahead, kill me, an old white woman.” (They didn’t.) She founded an orphanage after the genocide. She made one of her black workers her business partner. She helped women workers who were beaten by their husbands. She genuinely seemed to love many of the Africans without patronizing them.

But, and I hardly see how this could have been avoided, she was a woman of her time. In the memoir she seems completely oblivious to the atrocities committed by the Belgians in the Congo. (She mentions only that the people “thank” the Belgian government for “governing them so well” before independence.) She expresses shock and regret that the Europeans kicked off “their” property by Congolese soldiers are now unable to pass that land down to their children and grandchildren as expected. She takes European life in Africa as a matter of course instead of a Colonialist phenomenon.

Nonetheless, she was a much better European than most. Perhaps because she was an American. (To Africans back in the day, all white Westerners were called Europeans. Like how the Thais call foreigners farang, which means “Frenchman.”) Rosamund’s husband was the big game hunter and explorer Kenneth Carr. When she first meets Dian Fossey, who is working with the mountain gorillas, Fossey stipulates that she NEVER mentions Carr’s name in her presence. She doesn’t. Rosamund admits to not liking Fossey at first – the outspoken animal rights advocate seems to have been an aquired taste. Though not mentioned in the book, Wikipedia suggests that Fossey may have captured suspected poachers and had them stripped and beaten with stinging nettles.

Ahead of Her Time

Hutus Tutsis and Batwas.
The Tutsis are very tall…many over seven feet. Hutus are moderate. Batwa pygmies are often under four feet tall.

In many ways, however, Rosamund was ahead of her time. She originally married Kenneth, as I suspect many women did in those days, because she was an adventurer born into the wrong gender. Even in 1949, there was no way a lone woman could do what she did without marrying that kind of man.

But once in Africa, she starts striking out on her own. First she takes a job managing a plantation. “Kenneth was livid that I would even consider such an idea. He said it was improper and unseemly and that I was utterly incapable of handling such an enterprise on my own.” Then, she starts driving. (For their first three years in Africa, he didn’t “allow” her to do so.)

It’s a shame that the country of Ruanda has been so scarred by genocide and civil wars. (I certainly won’t be visiting anytime soon.) Because there are so many wonders there. Including the Mountains of the Moon (the movie King Solomon’s Mines was filmed there). Including Batwa pygmies, the original inhabitants, most of whom stand less than four feet tall. The Batwa were pushed into the forest by the first wave of invaders, the Hutu. Then came the Tutsi. Then the Belgians.

And of course, near and dear to my heart, the gorillas. And the elephants. I Elephant Stamp from 1959absolutely hate that they shoot elephants which trample on the pyrethrum plants. In one poignant scene, Kenneth shoots a bull elephant who has come down from the mountains with four females, but the beast doesn’t go down. Thinking that he’s missed, Ken doesn’t try again.

The elephants stand there for hours. When they finally move off, the bull falls over. Turns out Kenneht’s shot killed him instantly – but the females surrounded him and held him upright until they could no longer bear his weight. Elephants are special. They should always be protected.

The Plant That Made it All Possible

Pyrethrum PlantsLike many Europeans, Rosamund managed, and then owned, a pyrethrum plantation. The pyrethrum plant, with its pretty white flowers, was discovered to be a powerful insecticide during World War I. The story: A company of soldiers bedded down in a field for the night. When they got up the next morning, all their body lice were dead.

Fair Warning: This book will crack your heart wide open and allow a lot of liquid to leak out of your eyes. Kind of like what happened to Lake Kivu when an earthquake made a crack in the bottom. All the water drained away. Many of the African characters you come to love in the book will be slaughtered senselessly. But Rosamund Halsey Carr clearly shows us that there can be good in the world too. The children of Ruanda are resilient, if only they are given a chance.

This is an extremely enjoyable memoir of a life well lived, and well loved.


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