As part of Bas Bleu’s 2015 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus material to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)
We first encountered this month’s selection, Land of a Thousand Hills, in 2014, when co-author Ann Howard Halsey’s sister-in-law sent us a review copy. Our catalog manager needed only a few pages to become hooked by the incredible true story of Rosamond Halsey Carr, a fashion illustrator who moved to Africa in 1949 as a newlywed. Ultimately, Rosamond’s love for Rwanda would outlast her marriage, and she lived in Africa until her death in 2006. She was able to share her inspiring life with readers, thanks to the dedication of her niece Ann. Recently we chatted with Ann about her extraordinary relative and the living legacy of Roz’s humanitarian work in Rwanda.
Bas Bleu: We loved being introduced to your remarkable Aunt Rosamond through Land of a Thousand Hills. Tell us a little about your relationship with her and how you two decided to write the memoir together.
Ann Howard Halsey: Ironically, I didn’t know Roz very well for most of my life. I was just a little girl when she and Kenneth left for Africa in 1949. It wasn’t until my first trip to Rwanda in 1989 that I really got to know her. And from the moment I stepped off the plane I was hooked. I completely fell in love with her, with the country, and with its people. And I knew even then that she had to write her memoirs, and I encouraged her to do so. She had, in fact, over the years, written a great deal—beautiful, descriptive vignettes, about the land, the people, the history, the culture, and about some of her experiences there. But I think it is accurate to say that she wrote more as an observer than a participant. There was very little of her in it.
Luckily, when she was evacuated in 1994, she managed to bring her writings out with her, and she left them with me for safe-keeping (never dreaming what I would do with them). By the spring of 1997, the orphanage was in full-swing and she had 70+ children to care for, and it became painfully clear to me that she would never have the time, or the means, to [write her story]. I knew it had to be done; I knew the time was right; and somehow I knew that I was the only person who could do it, and that I had to do it. So I quit my job, bought a computer, and started writing. Then I flew to Rwanda to surprise her with the first draft of the manuscript. She was definitely surprised. But she quickly came around and thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration process. And she was very proud of the book when it was finished.
BB: Rosamond was an extraordinarily dauntless woman! Does her bold and adventurous spirit run in the family?
AHH: My initial instinct was to simply say “yes,” I come from a long line of strong women, which is absolutely true. But the reality is that Roz was the least likely candidate for a life of such adventure and adversity. She was the eldest daughter of a New York City bond trader and grew up in a world of privilege. It was a sheltered life and one that left her unprepared for life’s inevitable disappointments. As a young woman she was headstrong and impulsive with a naïve approach to life, which often led to unrealistic expectations. As an example, when her marriage to Kenneth began to unravel, she decided the solution was to move to Africa! She was wholly unprepared for the rigors of life there and was terrified much of the time, particularly in the early years when Kenneth would go off and leave her alone for weeks at a time. The strength and bravery for which she is recognized today were acquired over a long period of time and at a terrible cost. When asked why she stayed in Africa for so many years and through so much upheaval, she always replied that it was out of pure stubbornness. (She was too proud to admit that the whole thing had been a big mistake!) Whenever it was the logical time to leave, some twist of fate would end up causing her to stay.
BB: The chapters about Dian Fossey were fascinating. She came across as a complex (and rather difficult) person and the relationship sounded complicated, as well. How would you describe their friendship? What did Roz think of the movie Gorillas in the Mist (in which Dian was played by Sigourney Weaver and Roz was played by Julie Harris)?
AHH: Roz’s friendship with Dian Fossey began with Dian’s dramatic arrival in Rwanda in 1967 and lasted until her tragic death (murder) in 1985… more than eighteen years. It was not always an easy friendship, because Dian was not an easy person, but I believe that Roz was perhaps the only person in Rwanda who truly loved and understood Dian. Several chapters of the book are devoted to her and contain some information that has never been told before.
The filming of Gorillas in the Mist was an exciting time for everyone at Mugongo. The plantation was overrun with filmmakers and movie stars for months. Much of what was filmed at Mugongo ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor. Roz and I both felt that this was unfortunate, as we felt the film could have used some lighter moments. But she loved the movie and thought it was an honest and realistic portrayal of Dian. Roz corresponded with both Julie Harris and Sigourney Weaver for many years and considered both dear friends. Julie said she felt a special bond with Roz because she was the only “living” person she had ever portrayed.
BB: The epilogue shares a harrowing story of an attack on Mugongo during your visit to Rwanda in August 1977. Did you fear for Rosamond’s safety after you left? Did you or any other family members ever encourage her to leave Rwanda? Did you ever feel drawn to return there?
AHH: Yes, I was terribly frightened for everyone’s safety. In fact, less than five months later Roz and the children (and staff, the goats, etc.) were forced to leave Mugongo and relocate to Gisenyi, where they remained for seven years. The war and its aftereffects were felt for many years and the security in the region remained extremely volatile. By this time, my family and I had long since given up trying to convince Roz to come home. Rwanda was her home now and this was where she wanted to spend the rest of her life.
I did return to Rwanda many times—nine times in all. My last trip was in November 2006 for Roz’s memorial service. Hundreds of people stood in the pouring rain to pay tribute to this woman who had inspired them and touched their lives. The most moving moment for me was when the children sang in their beautiful harmonies.
BB: Our edition of Land of a Thousand Hills was published in 2000. What additions/updates to the epilogue would you add in a new printing?
AHH: Much has happened since that time. Roz and the children spent seven years in Gisenyi, moving around from one facility to another. It had been Roz’s ultimate dream to create a permanent home for the children at Mugongo. That dream became a reality in November 2005, when a beautiful new complex of buildings was completed and Roz and the children moved back to the farm. Soon afterwards, her health began to decline. I think she felt her work was done. Roz Carr died on September 29, 2006, quietly in her sleep, at the age of 94.
Most of the children are grown now and living independently. Most have completed secondary school, many in the top percentile of their classes. Fifteen are currently attending university; some have graduated and have embarked on meaningful and successful careers. Some are married and have children of their own. They remain close and are very much a family. They all return to the Imbabazi each November to commemorate Roz’s life. This is her legacy.
In 2012, the government mandated that all orphanages in Rwanda be closed and that all orphaned children be resettled with relatives or surrogate families. As a result, the Imbabazi is no longer a resident orphanage facility. However, we still provide for the children’s education and monitor their progress as they transition to adulthood.
The Imbabazi is still very much in operation as a working farm, a community educational center, and a tourist destination. In January 2015, we opened the Imbabazi Pre-School, with three classes daily of 4 and 5-year-olds, dressed in uniforms and eager to learn. Roz would approve.
BB: What’s next for Ann Howard Halsey? Are there other books you’d like to write?
AHH: I am not one of those people who always dreamed of being a writer. So, this is not a career I purposely chose; instead, I think it chose me. I have helped to write the one book I was meant to write. And it’s been a thrilling experience from beginning to end. I have met so many people and done so many things that I never could have imagined—such as “chatting” with all of you. I am happy to report that the movie rights have been optioned and we are hopeful that filming will begin in early 2016.
BB: Our thanks to Ann for sharing such an extraordinary story. We look forward to the film!