Skip to main content

By Richard Matheron

Land of a Thousand Hills: My Life in Rwanda
By Rosamond Halsey Carr
with Ann Howard Halsey
(New York: Viking Penguin, 1999, Pp. 248. $23.95)

I fear this cannot be an unbiased book review. I look back to my posting as American Consul at Bukavu in the rebellion-torn eastern Congo of 1964 and 1965 as the most exhilarating period of my Foreign Service career. One highlight of that unforgettable period was getting to know Rosamond Carr, that widely-respected if unlikely American lady planter who grew pyrethrum daisies in neighboring Rwanda at the northern end of Lake Kivu.

Land of a Thousand Hills covers a lot more than its subtitle “My Life in Rwanda” suggests. Indeed, Mrs. Carr puts the events that have taken place in Rwanda and the Congo since the 1950s into a personal perspective, but she also carefully documents the origins of the rebellions and the genocide that have plagued this overwhelmingly beautiful, mountainous, and lake-strewn African “Switzerland.” She also shows how the ethnic rivalries among the Tutsis, Hutus, and Batwa pygmies played on the stage of international rivalries of the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. Without scholarly pretensions, this book (and its excellent index) are a priceless resource for the student of African history.

It is, however, the personal narrative that makes this book so engaging. Carr spices up her story with vivid accounts of her relations, romantic as well as platonic, financial and agricultural as well as philanthropic. Despite so many disappointments on each of these fronts, she demonstrates an uncanny judgement of character. Her servant Sembagare becomes a trusted friend and her personal interpreter of Rwandan culture.

Much of the charm of the early chapters covers the good life of the expatriate communities around Lake Kivu before Congolese and Rwandan independence. Those of us who came shortly after could still savor the remnants. The author even turns the visit of late Ambassador “Mac” Godley, staff, and family into a tale worth including. (That visit is documented in the photo, shown above, that I have kept in the album of my own adventures around Lake Kivu.) Still, the lives of the Rwandans and Congolese in her enterprises are her main concern.

Two of the most absorbing chapters treat with the problems that the hot-tempered Dian Fossey encountered dealing with Rwandan neighbors and officials while making enormous strides in the protection of the Upland Gorilla. Carr was a useful intermediary, and readers who saw the film version of Gorillas in the Mist will recall that the author was played by actress Julie Harris.

Now in her 80s, Carr has never fallen out of love with Rwanda and Africa. Having lost her otherwise successful agricultural and business enterprises to the calamities of Rwanda during the 1990s, she applies her present-day boundless energies and love to the orphanage that she founded and has defended with her very life. It is remarkable that, with all the genocidal horrors that she describes without flinching, she just never gives up.

Carr engaged her niece, Ann Howard Halsey, in bringing this elegant memoir to fruition. Land of a Thousand Hills should intrigue the same readers who fell in love with Africa through Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa and Kuki Gallmann’s I Dreamed of Africa. All born to ease, these three Western women—one Danish, one Italian, and one American—translated their early romance with Africa into rugged work with and for Africans. Carr’s chronicle is every bit as fascinating and should be a certain candidate for Hollywood.

Ambassador Richard Matheron is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served at eight different posts in seven African countries, including American Consul at Bukavu in Kivu Province in the Congo.

Comments are closed.