A garden in the Virunga hills

Over 10 years ago, when we lived in Rwanda the first time, Rosamond (or Roz) Carr was by far the most prominent American resident in the country. She had arrived there with her British adventurer husband in 1949 and was the last remaining foreign plantation owner.

Roz Carr and her farm, then and now.

Born in 1912 to a wealthy (until the 1929 stock market crash) New Jersey family, she had grown up with “boarding schools, country clubs, and debutante balls”  and was working as a fashion illustrator in Manhattan when she married the much older Kenneth Carr in 1942.  By the end of the decade, their relationship (and their finances) were faltering, and they decided to try farming in the Belgian colonies of Congo and Rwanda in the foothills of the Virunga Mountains.

They first managed a pyrethrum plantation in the eastern Congo. Then, in 1955, her marriage over, Roz bought a 270-acre plantation of her own in Rwanda, called Mugongo. Within view of the Karisimbi, Mikeno, and Nyiragongo volcanoes, she began to create an extensive formal English-style garden.  In 1957, when the price of pyrethrum dropped, she started supplementing her income by selling cut flowers to hotels on Lake Kivu.

The house at Mugongo, covered in creeping fig.

Roz was a woman of great elegance, charm, and determination.  In the 1950s, she enjoyed the social highlife of the region’s Belgian planters, but when colonialism ended and they (and Kenneth) went home, she resolved to remain with the farm, the garden, and the lifestyle she’d created.  She often lived on the edge of  bankruptcy, but always considered Rwanda the right place to be.

In 1967, she began a long friendship with the mountain gorilla researcher, Dian Fossey, who often used Mugongo as a refuge from the hardships of living on the volcanoes.

In 1986, Vanity Fair editor Alex Shoumatoff wrote a long article about Fossey’s murder.  In it, he  described Roz as “glamorous” (she was 74).   Shoumatoff recounted his visit to Mugongo, with its garden  “in spectacular bloom” and the cottage  “cozy . . . with a fireplace, rugs, pillows, a pet gray parrot on a stand, lots of books, old New Yorkers on the table.”  By that time, the market for pyrethrum was so poor that almost all of the plantation had been converted into a flower farm supplying hotels, businesses, and embassies in Kigali.

Roz enjoyed some mild celebrity while advising the makers of the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist.  She was played by Julie Harris, and her garden played itself.

In the movie, Dian Fossey was as portrayed coming through this gate and meeting Roz for the first time. In reality, they had met twice before.

By the age of 82, she’d had a long eventful life, firmly rooted to a piece of land and a country. Then, in April 1994, it all turned upside down and she had to start again.

The violence of the genocide forced her out of Mugongo and back to the U.S.   Horrified by the killings on her farm, she initially thought that she would never go back to Rwanda. But in August, she received word that her old farm manager had survived. She managed to get on to a U.N. cargo plane and returned home to find everything in ruins.  Seeing the many lost and orphaned children,  she turned the farm into an orphanage for 40 children by the end of the year.  She called  it  Imbabazi, which means “a place where you will receive all the love and care a mother would give.”

One of her few regrets in life had been that she had never had children, but in her autobiography, she wrote,  “I can only surmise that God didn’t feel I was ready to have children until I was 82 years old. Then he sent me forty all at once.”

Imbabazi has cared for more than 400 children since then.

When I would occasionally meet Roz in Kigali in 2000 and 2001, she was always beautifully coiffed and dressed and never looking her 88 years.  With her niece, Ann Howard Halsey, she had written her autobiography, Land of a Thousand Hills, in 1999, and it had expanded her already wide circle of friends and supporters.  When violent insurgencies in 1997 pushed her and the children off the farm, the Heineken-Bralirwa brewery housed them in Gisenyi.  Checks from abroad always came just in time.  Flowers from the garden continued to be sold in Kigali (they are still delivered around town today).

In 2002, she formed the Imbabazi Foundation with an international board of directors to oversee the orphanage’s operations and to insure its continuity.  In 2005,  Roz and the children finally returned to Mugongo.  She died there in 2006, at the age of 94.  She was buried in the garden, and her children planted out the ground around her grave.

Today, about 90 children remain at Imbabazi.  Most are preteens and teenagers, and the Foundation is preparing them for meaningful, independent lives through education and vocational training.  A few have gone to college.

Imbabazi will accept no more children and is considering ways that it can work for the community in the future.  It has a working farm on the property, which produces milk, meat, and vegetables for the children.  It is considering using the house and garden for tourism.  If you go there today, you can tour the garden and take tea (a donation of $20 per person is suggested).

Roz loved watching Intore dancers on this lawn every Sunday, but during the genocide eight people were killed in the garden.

Friday before last, I finally got to see Roz’s celebrated garden.  It is as beautiful as it was always described to me, not only for the long English-style flower borders, but more particularly for the deep planting beds off the formal lawn on the side of the house.  Temperate climate perennials and annuals mix with orchids, calla lilies, tree ferns, and other tropicals.  A number of paths, most paved in lava rock, wind through the thick flora and out to the old fields and the views of the volcanoes.

I have put all my photos into the gallery below.  Click on any thumbnail to scroll through all the enlarged pictures.

You can see an interesting  2004 video interview with Roz  here.   You can also make a (U.S.) tax-deductible donation to Partners in Conservation and indicate that the money should go to Imbabazi.  It is the only privately run group home for children in Rwanda and depends entirely on donations.  See the Imbabazi Foundation website for more information.

ADDENDUM: You can see the garden in May 2014 here.

11 thoughts on “A garden in the Virunga hills

    1. Oh no, the house — cottage, really — only has two small bedrooms. The children lived in an old pyrethrum drying house, which was converted into a dormitory. Now, there are several buildings on the property for the children. The orphanage has cared for about 400 children since December 1994.

  1. Rose was our friend . We lived in Rwanda from 1981-1989. We visited her quite often…. We even got a dog from her, a puppy from her beloved Tiffany and Flip. We called the pup Floris…I respect her very, very much…. She was a great lady…the most impressive lady, I ever met///

    Sincere greetings… Rose will stay in our hearts forever…

  2. I grew up in Rwanda (we left in the late 80s), and my parents and I used to visit Madame Carr (as we used to call her) on a regular basis. I have vivid and very fond memories of her, of the Sunday Intore dances, exploring her magical garden, playing with Tiffany and Flip (the parents of our late dog), and feeding peanuts to her African Grey.

    When ever I see Hydrangeas, I have to think of this incredible Lady who loved everyone and was loved by everyone.

    I have read her book countless times. To me she is a role model and an example to us women. She has proved that nothing is impossible. If you have read the book, you know what I am talking about.

    In the years before she died, we exchanged some letters. I will always regret that I did not go back in time to visit her. May she rest in peace.

  3. We even have a long video, put on a dvd, of the magnificent garden and the Intore dancers/and dancers of the Mutura together with Mme Carr and her guests/friends made between 1985/1989…
    I like the article … very nice pictures…. sweet memories for us…..
    I am glad I found it on Internet

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