I know I’ve already mentioned this extraordinary woman in my last post, and the book about her life, but I don’t believe I’ve done her the justice she deserves. This is because I hadn’t gotten ’round to finishing the book when I wrote that post. The shame, OH the shame.
Feeling that I’d written a slapdash mention of her life, I resolved that I really should do a proper read of The Land of a Thousand Hills. I got hold of the book in The Netherlands on Kindle, before coming here, because I wanted to learn more about the country I was going to live in that just stats and history. History, specifically, was something I didn’t want to touch, for several reasons. For one, I didn’t want to have the first images I have of these people in my head to be ones of violence, fear, confusion and utter chaos. Second, I wasn’t really in a mood to sit and read about any kind of violence or complete and utter social disrupt at all, because I hardly have the stomach for it, (Case in point, I recently bought American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, which is really well written, clever and funny, but then wanted to see what the characters look like in the film and I got to the part where Bateman stabs a hobo and stomps his dog to death so the book now lies abandoned, swaddled in my own fear and apprehension in the corner of my room).
So I was looking rather for something more romantic, more rose-tinted perhaps, more reminiscent of a book like Out of Africa. So after trawling through lists of books on Rwanda’s Genocide, both fiction and non-fiction, I happened upon this interesting sounding biography of an American woman’s life in Rwanda, and decided to try it. But then moving happened, and the tying up of loose ends, so I never managed to finish it, or indeed even get past the first few chapters. I couldn’t picture what I was reading. So fast forward to a couple of days ago, I wrote a little-informed blurb about some woman whose book I have. My journalism training storage cells sprung to life and told me I was being stupid, so I decided then and there to restart the book. I am now familiar with the geology of Rwanda, as well as some of the ways of its people, and could picture at least some of the anecdotes happening. I finished the whole thing in 2 days. And I got the rose-tinted atmospheric story I was looking for, but also got a history lesson, which I now realize I actually needed.
So, on to Roz. I’m now in one of those obsessive states where an author or a person or even a fictional character has become like a demigod. I talk about her endlessly, to the slight indifference of my parents. They’ll just have to read it and see, come to the light. She seems to have been an amazing woman, and an amazing person. I am so excited and in love with this story that I wish I could tell you all about it, but I would start to ramble and disinterest you. I wish I could zap it into your brain, but I haven’t got that upgrade yet. But I’ll just write a bit about it because I have to.
In 1949, Rosamond was living in New York as a fashion illustrator, along with her husband/woman’s hat model Kenneth Carr. Kenneth was a hunter-explorer with a love for Africa. His love turned to her future, as they set out for the Belgian Congo. This previously shy woman upped sticks from her semi-comfortable New Jersey upbringing, her Irish Terrier Sheila in toe, and hopped on and off several boats to end up in the middle of the bush bush, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, languages and cultures. The only white people there at the time were utter eccentrics. Mad for adventure, and come to Africa to make their fortunes. The stories she tells of those mid-century Europeans living in the area at the time sounds like she made them all up. A lot of them were affiliates of European royal families who were cast out for their lewd behavior. Philanderers who were told to go philander about in Africa. In the beginning, there were weekend-parties and jaunts to the lake, long safaris, imported chocolates and cheeses. She landed into this society, and a friend of theirs asked if they would look after his plantation. This they did, and they ended up owning part of it.
This was to be Roz’s life from then on, managing several different pyrethrum plantations. She divorced Kenneth not long after, and went on to manage plantations by herself. It wasn’t all lemonade and palm frond fans for her, though. Several times, there would be clashes in the Congo during which friends would urge her to leave. But she had her plantation, and her workers and neighbors counted on her for survival. Plus, she had gathered several more dogs, a cat, two parrots, a duiker named Betty and a goat named Bella, so she couldn’t possibly leave. She never did, during all those clashes and uprisings and crap going on all around her, she simply stayed, often completely on her own. She moved around to several plantations, finally ending up in Rwanda, in the Virunga mountains near Lake Kivu, with a Volcano for a view. Here, she made friends again, locals and expats alike.
She had a pretty special life up there. She tells of narrow escapes from Leopards, which apparently sound like wheezing humans, in pain, until they abruptly go quiet. When Leopards go suddenly still, they’re about to attack. The biggest pests on the plantation at that time were elephants who would cleverly calculate how to pass through all the traps and blockades she tried–in vain–to construct against them. The people she surrounded herself with sound like utter gems of human kind.
One man, Cleophas–who handled the books– was from a tribe of cannibals. He was an enormous man, and had his teeth filed into points. Nevertheless, one day he came up to her and asked if he could borrow a few men for a ‘special project’. Cleophas and Roz sometimes went for strolls around the hills. They would often have to cross this river, which had to be done over a long slippery log. She just couldn’t get the hang of it. On her birthday, Cleophas led Roz to the river, and presented her with a bridge. I remember her saying that this was the most beautiful bridge in Africa, because Cleophas had covered it with mats of grass.
She knew Dian Fossey, whose personality she couldn’t stand, and for anyone interested at all in her, there’s some pretty great anecdotes about her in this book. The way Roz ‘explains’ Dian, reminds me of myself. I don’t particularly like humans, and feign concern about human issues, but if there’s a puppy with a sad face and protruding ribs in my vicinity, it will be in my bed tomorrow with a squeaky toy and a fat belly. I have stolen a dog from my neighbor before. Dian is the same. She once stole a dog from a man on the street because it looked emaciated, pressing a few hundred francs into his hand, yelling at him all the while. The man later explained that he was only taking the dog to the vet for worm medicine.
Sembagare, who worked on her plantation before becoming co-owner, was her most loyal friend who stayed with her through all the hardships. When the genocide finally became too much for her to bear, and UN officers came to her house, and granted her 5 minutes to pack before they escorted her away. She left all her animals, and all the people she loved, and went back to America. While there, she couldn’t keep her eyes of the TV screen, glued to the events that were unfolding, seeing children she watched grow up either fleeing in fear, or being the monsters on the other side. She resolved that she simply couldn’t stay in America. She had to go home. Sembagare had stayed at the plantation, watching over her animals and her house until he really couldn’t anymore. He fled. She came back to Rwanda, and her animals had been alone for a couple of weeks. Except for one of her parrots, her cat, her dogs, Bella the goat, all of them were still there and alive, but nobody had heard anything from Sembagare. After several weeks, she learned that he was still alive. His family, however, weren’t so lucky. Sembagare came back to Roz and the plantation, and never left again.
They started an orphanage called Imbabazi for the children in the area whose parents were either lost or dead. Sometimes they tracked parents down, sometimes they found family members, and sometimes the children just stayed at Imbabazi with Roz and the other carers.
Really and truly, this woman is a heroine. I urge you to read the book because it’s just such a lovely story. It’s rich, it’s funny, it’ll make you cry, it’ll make you feel all warm and tingly inside. If anyone wants it, but can’t find it at the bookstore, let me know and I’ll send you a copy! There will be a film, there has to be!!