Witnessing Rwanda's plight

LAND OF A THOUSAND HILLS: MY LIFE IN RWANDA By Rosamond Halsey Carr with Ann Howard Halsey Viking 272 pp., $24.95

Many lone women seem to have a deep affinity for Africa. Thankfully, they continue to record their memoirs and enrich our understanding of this vast continent.

Rosamond Carr writes from what once was her flower plantation, giving a breathtaking view of her beloved Rwanda and its people, moving the reader from a pastoral paradise to brutal genocide.

Carr left New York and her fashion illustrator job in 1949 to follow her husband to the Congo. Her description of colonial Africa, where she faced a dilapidated home with a retinue of 14 servants, sets the scene for a lifetime of struggle for financial and physical survival.

After a grievous divorce, this courageous woman spent years supporting herself by managing and finally owning vast plantations of pyrethrum, a natural insecticide. In 1962, she was the only American landowner and permanent resident of Rwanda. "The land had taken hold of my heart and soul and would not let go," she writes.

Carr thoughtfully examines the bliss and turmoil of life near the Rwandan/Congo border for over 50 tumultuous years. From her "picturesque paradise" eight miles from the nearest neighbor, she takes us through glorious years of hobnobbing with European colonists in "privilege and complacency." Finally, we are exposed to the unthinkable slaughter of the 1990s.

This amazing life journey winds up with Carr's dedication to the orphanage she recently established for Rwandan children. Having had no children of her own, she now feels "like the woman who lived in a shoe.... blessed with 92."

Names, famous and infamous, stream through the pages, as does the dazzling pageantry of African dynasties and local dance spectacles. The splendor that was Africa is balanced with her daily interdependence on loyal Hutu and Tutsi neighbors and farm workers.

The author became closely acquainted with Dian Fossey and her struggles to save the gorillas, relating her own encounter with a young male in his native habitat who leapt from a tree into her arms. She is also confronted with marauding elephants and stalking leopards, while embracing pet antelopes in her home.

The ultimate value of this memoir, beyond the vivid descriptions of landscape and people, comes from the clear explanations of Rwandan history, from Belgian colonial rule through independence in 1962 and the successful African government that followed.

Of course, the enmity between Hutu and Tutsi tribes, always struggling for supremacy, finally erupted into catastrophe. This decade, the hatred that had been fomenting for 400 years burst into the flames that have destroyed a magnificent country, eliminating half of its population and almost all infrastructure.

Heartbroken, Carr carefully chronicles the riveting tragedy as it occurred, so that the reader at last comprehends the incomprehensible. After being reluctantly evacuated at the height of surrounding slaughter, this devoted woman (at 82) returned to her beloved and desecrated home in 1994, while fighting continued.

When faced in her own garden with soldiers brandishing weapons on their genocidal hunt, she exclaimed, "You don't mind killing old women. If you want to kill someone, here I am. Kill me!"

With the help of her niece, Ann Howard Halsey, the author has articulated a new world for those who have not experienced the paradox that is Africa. Swinging from celestial bliss to rampant violence, readers, along with visitors and settlers, will continue to be captivated.

*Marjorie D. Hamlin has traveled widely in Africa.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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