Friday, December 01, 2006

Rosamond Carr (1912 - 2006)

by Frank Crigler

The last word I had from Rosamond Carr came in a letter dated March 26, 2004, not long after my daughter Lauren had visited her in Gisenyi. In her smoothly handwritten letter, she of course referred to the awful genocide that had occurred since we were last in touch, saying she found it “totally impossible” to explain how such a thing could have occurred among people who had seemed “the most gentle people I had ever known.”

Then she described the “Imbabazi” orphanage she had set up on her plantation, in what had been the rustic dryer where she processed her chrysanthemums to make pyrethrum. It now housed 117 children of all three Rwandan ethnic groups, “and the children truly love each other — the older ones helping and caring for the youngest. . . . There is so much visible tenderness, Frank — and sharing of gifts and toys — that I have to believe it will last all of their lives.”

* * *
In an earlier letter, I had shared my own opinion that Rwanda’s collapse and the chaos in most other African countries could be traced in part to the disruptive impact of colonialism and its Cold War aftermath on their fragile societies. Rosamond strongly agreed, faulting in particular European and American governments’ supposed development programs for undermining their societies. As an example, she cited our strong pressures on the late President Habyarimana (whom she had known well, as his birthplace was near her plantation) to democratize Rwanda and abandon his one-party rule. The World Bank and the U.S., she said, had told him that unless he adopted a multi-party system they would no longer support Rwanda. “Within just two months,” she said, “there were sixteen ‘parties’ — just groups of people who disliked each other. And that is when the extremist party came into existence, those who were definitely the future Interahamwe.”

* * *
Rosamond’s home was a tiny, ivy-covered, square stone house situated near the Congo border in the north of Rwanda, on the edge of a vast fertile plain ringed by towering volcanoes. The house itself was surrounded by sumptuous flower gardens — spectacular roses of every variety, hydrangeas, chrysanthemums, calla lilies, iris, lavender — carefully laid out in geometric, English garden style. Thanks to its high, Mountains-of-the-moon elevation, the climate was cool most of the year, with ample rainfall, so that European flowers thrived. And it was thanks to those flowers — the mums and their pyrethrum, in particular, but also the cut flowers she managed to sell locally — that enabled Rosamond to keep body and soul together, year after difficult year.

A visit to this bit of paradise was unlike any experience I’ve had elsewhere, and happily my wife and I were able to visit Rosamond there at least a half-dozen times during our three years in Rwanda. In our time, the trip from the capital Kigali was an arduous one, entailing a rough five-hour drive over twisting mountain roads choked with red laterite dust and clogged with long-horned cattle and their slender herders. After grinding through dozens of tiny villages and past numberless clumps of thatched huts, each with its tiny garden patch and its dozen or so bare-bottomed children waving brightly at us, we reached the tiny town of Mutura, where an even bumpier road branched off to Rosamond’s Mugongo plantation.
Some fifteen minutes further on, we found ourselves at the gate of what appeared to be an English country cottage, hedged about with tall cypresses and huge hydrangeas. A gravel path led straight through the incredible garden to the cottage door, where Rosamond waited to welcome us, always looking lovely. Inside the door was a small whitewashed front room divided into sitting and dining areas, simply but comfortably appointed and always featuring a few fine table linens along with two or three wild animal skins. Because the windows of the cottage were small and there was no electric lighting, the room’s relative darkness always surprised me. But later in the day, kerosene lamps warmed the atmosphere.

Leading off to one side of the front room was Rosamond’s bedroom, which featured more crisp linens and a snug bed-and-breakfast feel. A tiny toilet with rain-fed shower and washbowl adjoined the bedroom.

Leading off inn another direction from the front room was a distinctly unappealing kitchen with wood fired stove, the private preserve of Rosamond’s Rwandan cook, who in addition to preparing quite respectable meals always managed to produce particularly delicious biscuits or cookies in time for afternoon tea. Teatime was in fact the climactic moment during any visit to Mugongo plantation, an elegant ritual during which the cook — barefoot but dressed in immaculate whites — served guests from a tray with crisp, embroidered linen napkins, silver teaspoons, and china teapot, cups and saucers, and then proceeded to light the kerosene lamps. Conversation always seemed to take on a more elevated tone to match the ceremony.

* * *

In her book “Land of a Thousand Hills,” Rosamond herself describes far better than I can the beauty of her adopted homeland, its extraordinary people, its spectacular fauna and flora, and the enchanted bit of space she and her tiny flower plantation occupied there for half a century. She knew its ugliness as well, and was able to write about that too, in ways I could not begin to match. Late in her book, she described her last climb up the miserably rough mountain trail to Karisoke, the research station of her very close friend Dian Fossey. Dian, who had been brutally murdered, was to be buried there that morning, close by her beloved gorillas. “I was numb with shock and grief,” she wrote. “My hands grabbed at the dense vegetation as I slipped and stumbled on the muddy slopes.” My wife Bettie and I too had made that climb numerous times, at a much younger age than Rosamond’s and under much less painful circumstances. We could imagine its difficulty on that day.

She continued:
Many people attended the service, but I believe I was the only person there who had loved Dian. The Rwandans present were all police officers or soldiers, and the foreigners were principally Embassy functionaries or journalists . . . . All of the Rwandans who had been close to Dian were in the Ruhengeri jail, being held for questioning. . . .
I could not stop weeping. When the earth fell upon the plain wooden coffin, I moved away from the gathering and walked unsteadily toward the meadow near Dian’s house. Standing in the meadow, closer than I had ever seen him before, was a great old bushbuck that Dian had often watched from her window . . . gazing toward Dian’s house, as if to say good-bye.

* * *
My last conversation with Rosamond was by telephone in 1994, at the height of the genocide. Under pressure from family, friends, and American Embassy officials, she had finally consented to be evacuated from Rwanda and returned to the United States, although not for very long. Horror-stricken by the mayhem she had witnessed, she told me that the most painful moment was watching from the window of her home as a group of Hutu children she had literally known from birth mercilessly beat a Tutsi child with sticks, one who had been their playmate up to then. She ran to her door and cried out to them to stop. “Why are you doing that,” she demanded to know. “We must kill him, Madame Carr,” they answered, because they’ve killed our President!”

Not long afterward, Rosamond returned to Mugongo and set about converting her plantation into a refuge for Rwandan children orphaned by the genocide.

* * *
Rosamond Carr died just two months ago yesterday, at age 94, at her home in Rwanda, after spending a lifetime cultivating beauty in Africa while “trying to pretend,” as she wrote to me, that the acts of horror she witnessed there “had not happened.”

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