NOT TO BE MISSED
"Land of a thousand hills. My life in Rwanda" (1999), an autobiography by Rosamond HALSEY CARR
French translation : "Le pays aux mille collines. Ma vie au Ruanda". Paris: Payot et Rivages, 2002. (324p.).
In collaboration with Ann Howard Halsey
Ce compte rendu en français
The appeal of this autobiography will reach a many and varied readership: It proposes an interesting take of Rwanda's history as experienced by an American woman who arrived in Africa in 1949 and witnessed first hand Rwanda's brutal transition from feudal domination and colonial rule, to democracy. It also tells a tale of great fortitude in spite of personal, emotional and financial adversity. But above all, it is a wonderful and heart-warming testimony to the proactive role played by strong and forbearing women in trying circumstances.
Rosamond Halsey Carr was born in 1912 in New Jersey and became a fashion designer in New York. In 1941, she met the hunter, explorer and cinematographer Kenneth Carr, twenty years her senior. He was giving talks about his long sojourn in Africa and she was fascinated by the man and his depiction of the continent. She married him and they arrived in Rwanda in 1949. Unfortunately, life did not turn out to be the blissful and exciting experience she had in mind. Her ageing and rather placid husband did not get the job he was expecting and so, the pair decided instead to journey across Africa and to go back to the US.
It was not to be. Their car broke down just as they were about to leave and, with no spare parts available, they had to stay put. Money was soon lacking and Kenneth Carr had to accept a friend's proposal to become the manager of a pyrethrum farm  across the border, in the Congo. Resigned to make the best of a bad job, Kenneth soon left his wife alone on the plantation for weeks on end, joining safaris and more exciting activities. Rosamond was devastated. "As a matter of necessity", she says, "I managed to pull myself together and began to accompany [the overseer] Cleophas on his daily tours of inspection. I so enjoyed those long walks across the fields and through the drying-house, greeting the workers and playing games with the children. I gradually learned to speak Swahili, and as time went by, I learned a great deal about running a plantation". (p.50)
As her relationship with Kenneth Carr deteriorated further, she offered her services to an Italian neighbour, Gino, who was looking for someone to manage his plantation during his extended holiday in Europe. Kenneth thought it was "improper and unseemly" (p.56) for his wife to apply for such a position, but Gino did not have the same reservations and gave her the job. Thus began both her eventful career as a business woman, and her fifty-year sojourn in Mugongo, a plantation of 90 hectares, where she would eventually pass away. As it turned out, she was readily accepted by the numerous people working on the plantation, and took great pleasure in running a fairly large enterprise employing hundreds of workers. What she did not know, she learned fast, such as negotiating the dirt road from the plantation to Kisenyi in the old 1938 "clunker", left behind by Gino. "Kenneth had never allowed me to drive an automobile in the three years we had lived in Africa" (p.60), she says, and Gino's "chauffeur" did not drive.
Time went by quickly and upon Gino's return, Rosamond decided to separate from her husband and to return to the United States. But Kenneth begged her to come back in "a flurry of impassionate letters"(p.62); life in America seemed pretty dull compared with Rwanda's challenges and the couple settled together again. Not for long though, as an oft-deserted Rosamond left her husband for good, investing all her energy in the new job Gino offered her. Shortly afterwards, the opportunity to buy Mugongo came up when Gino decided to go back to Italy permanently: and she seized it.
Rosamond's mixed fortunes in subsequent years followed the prevailing political turmoil and the end of Europeans' "privilege and complacency" (p.91). White colonials with holdings in Congo left the region in disarray at the time of the Congolese independence. Many were killed, others ran for their life, and Mobutu's assassination of Lumumba with the complicity of the CIA and Belgium's secret service, did not make the country any safer. Those farmers living in Rwanda were confronted by a different set of issues resulting from the fratricidal enmity between the Hutu majority, who yearned to have their say in managing the country, and a minority Tutsi determined to maintain their hold on power at all cost.
Before the 1960s, education, government jobs, the priesthood and all the positions of responsibility, political and otherwise, were concentrated in the hands of the Tutsis who represented only 15% of the population. The Hutus were eager to change that state of affairs and the bashing of a Hutu leader by Tutsi youths in 1959 degenerated into an all-out civil war, the torching of thousands of homes and a massive exodus of Tutsis to neighbouring countries. Democratic elections organised in 1961 saw the subsequent abolition of the monarchy and a Hutu led government was elected. But these changes gave rise to wide-spread violence, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees and large scale massacres of both Hutus and Tutsis that culminated in the 1994 massacres.
Civil unrest and disturbances, ongoing incursions of rogue militias from neighbouring countries, the collapsing price of pyrethrum, Mobutu's frequent and extended closure of the border with Congo that prevented the delivery of Mugongo's crops to Goma's pyrethrum extraction plant, the fire that burned to the ground the plantation's newly renovated pyrethrum-dryer, and eventually, the devastation of the property in 1994, and again in 1996 after President Kabila decided to dismantle refugee camps in Eastern Zaïre and send back hundred of thousands of refugees back to Rwanda; all that rocked the country and compelled Rosamond Carr to adapt to trying circumstances in order to save Mugongo from oblivion.
Her autobiography puts most of her successes down to sheer good luck, but the basis of her achievements is rather due to her tremendous drive, enduring friendship with Black and White household names and excellent social skills. Furthermore, her ability to adapt, rather than good fortune, seems to have been the key to her financial survival: When Mobutu closed the border for almost three years, preventing her from selling her pyrethrum, she took a position as manager in a small hotel in order to keep her business afloat; when the price of pyrethrum collapsed, she began to grow flowers that she sold all over Rwanda, and even further afield. And when Sembagare, the young man she hired as a house-servant in 1957, showed a great interest in her car, she taught him how to drive, making him the first Black Rwandan "chauffeur" of the region who really drove a car and was not confined to just cleaning and filling up "the vehicle of his Master", as all of Kenneth's boys had done previously.
Forty years later, Sembagare Munyamboneza was Rosamond Carr's business partner and the manager of Mugongo. "In all these years we have worked together, we have never had a serious dispute", she says. "Mugungo couldn't run without him, and neither could I" (p.171). This acknowledgment of others' contributions to the success of the plantation and her empathic disposition made her a well-liked and respected leader. Not surprisingly then, Rosamond had a wide circle of friends: local socialites, foreign heads of states, local politicians, as well as of strong critics of the government, such as zoologist and gorilla advocate, Dian Fossey, who were regularly her guests. In this context a large number of men crossed her path but paradoxically, very few male companions shared her intimacy and none could satisfy her longing for long-term commitment and love.
When she moved to New York in the 1930s, the megalopolis was "teeming with eligible young men . . . . but as often happens", she says, "those I took an interest in did not seem particularly interested in me, and vice versa" (p.13). Her subsequent marriage with the somewhat impotent Kenneth Carr in the 1940s brought her more disappointment than happiness. The blissful liaison with Cecil Hood that followed in the 1950s came to an end when Hood had to go back to England, and her affair with handsome Per Moller fizzled out in spite of a deep friendship and heartfelt love, after she discovered that this dear friend was an homosexual and, that "there was nothing I could do to change that, no matter how hard I tried" (p.162).
Eventually, no soulmate would ever settle in Mugongo permanently, but life went on. "I'am not quite sure how and when it happened," Rosamond says, "but suddenly I got older. I began to rely more and more on Sembagare for the day-to-day management of the plantation" (p.336). Time had come to loosen up and "to thank God every day for the blessings of Mugongo and a happy and fulfilling life" (p.337). However, destiny had once again some nasty surprises in store: she was 82 when the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi Rwandans followed the assassination of Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana which threw the country into chaos. Mugongo was again the theatre of senseless violence and Rosamond Carr was repatriated to her country of origin, "numb with grief and sorrow." (p.359)
But America was no longer her country and in defiance of everyone's advice, she soon decided to head back to Rwanda. Everything she owned had been stolen or destroyed, but Sembagare and many of Mugongo workers had survived, and everyone began working on a new project aimed at transforming the once rural enterprise into an orphanage open to the countless children victims of the war . Rosamond Halsey Carr's autobiography ends in 1997 as her "little orphanage . . . . has become a haven of love and laughter and a symbol of hope to all who have been a part of it" (p.394). But the bad days were not over yet, and Mugongo had to be evacuated once more in 1998 when random killings and warfare flared up again. It would only be at the end of 2005 that Rosamond and her orphanage could return "home". She was then 93.
Rosamond Halsey Carr's life is an absorbing read because it expresses an extraordinary destiny in terms of very mundane and common experiences. No-one escapes the roller-coaster of love, friendship, work, fulfilment, sorrow..., and it is neither the successes nor the failures of the main character that are intensely interesting, it rather is her quiet determination to deal with life as it comes, to do her best and to move on. Similarly, it is neither her challenge to social convention, nor her detachment from the vanity of colonial life that impresses, but her genuine interest in people from all walks of life that puts her experience beyond the duopoly of socio-historical rhetoric and political correctness. "Africa has a rich history of strong, independent women" (p.57) she wrote. Few would deny that she is definitely one of them: a woman of character whose memory is inscribed forever in the Land of the Thousand Hills.
1. Pyrethrum is a plant used to make insecticide.
2. The biography of Marguerite Barankiste by Christel Martin shows that in Burundi, just like in Rwanda, some women of exception acted resolutely to come to the rescue of children caught in the horrors of terrible inter-ethnic massacres that killed hundreds of thousands of Hutus and Tutsis in both countries and made hundred of thousands of orphans. Christel Martin. "La haine n'aura pas le dernier mot. Maggy, la femme aux 10 000 enfants". Paris: Albin Michel, 2005.
This review is based on the French translation of the autobiography but page numbers relate to the English original republished by Compass Press Large Print book series in 2000.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities