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.

Here (barely) in East Africa

Gardening in East Africa:  A Practical Handbook

This was my husband’s Christmas present to me — a copy of the third edition (1950) of Gardening in East Africa, by the members of the Kenya Horticultural Society and of the Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika Civil Services.

Rwanda (then the eastern edge of the Belgian Congo) just makes it onto the left side of the frontispiece map.

I like the first chapter’s opening sentence: “This chapter is intended for the beginner rather than for the hardened gardener.” ‘Hardened,’ not skilled or experienced, but hardened — as in, “I’ve been through a lot.”

The writer then chides those already toughened up Kenya gardeners who adopt “a pseudomodest manner” with newcomers:

“You have forgotten about the innumerable insect pests and plagues, cutworms, flies, aphides, and the fact that each kind of plant has a pest of its own to all seeming. What about the scorching wind, the burning sun, the hungry hares and antelopes nibbling your roses and carnations to death, the mousebirds that steal your fruit and tear your flowers to shreds? Think of the torrents of tropical rain, the raging floods that batter all your plants to the ground, and wash off your lovely top soil far, far away into the Desert or the Indian Ocean. . . .”  And please don’t get him started on the locusts.

Most of the color plates in the book were painted by Joy Adamson of “Born Free” fame.  The previous year, she had received the Grenfell Gold Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society for her botanical artwork.

Lady Muriel Jex-Blake (daughter of the 14th Earl of Pembroke, no less) was President of the Kenya Horticultural Society and author of three chapters of the book, as well as of her own book, Some Wildflowers of Kenya.

In Chapter 10, Lady Muriel is precise about how to plant a shrub: “give it a can of water, unless it is raining.”

Her husband, Dr. Arthur John Jex-Blake, was the book’s editor.  He made a promising start as a physician in England, but after serving in World War I and marrying Muriel in 1920, he left it all behind to live outside Nairobi.

The writer of his 1957 obituary noted that Dr. Jex-Blake always felt overshadowed by his aunt (Sophia Jex-Blake, one of the first women doctors in Great Britain and co-founder of two medical schools for women) and his sisters (the heads of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and Girton College), but “he loved flowers, the classics, and beautiful things.”

In 1948, however, as he completed his preface to the third edition, he seemed to be finding the post-war times challenging.  In expressing his gratitude to his publishers, he nearly lost control of his final sentence:

“For, after three piping years of peace, printers and publishers, like the rest of the industrial world, are ever at the mercy of the impersonal incompetence of officialdom and the well-organized administrative chaos now, alas! so painfully familiar to everybody who lives and works in England.”

An advertisement at the back of the book:  Ransomes can supply you with a mower suitable for maintaining your aerodrome or Kikuyu grass.