Rosamond Carr: A Mother’s Love in Rwanda

by Martha Nelson

Many women aspire to having a family. Few are prepared to become a mother to hundreds of Rwandan orphans – and this without any background in social work or support from charities. “One of the few regrets in my life is that I never had children of my own,” Rosamond Carr wrote, three years after the arrival of the first orphan. “Today at the age of 85, I am blessed with 72.”1 What is it that would move a former New York fashion illustrator to begin this touching work in her 80’s?

New York Socialite

Rosamond Halsey Carr was born in 1912 -- the eldest of three children of a South Orange, New Jersey stockbroker -- and attended private schools before becoming a fashion designer for New York department stores and a glamorous socialite. She met her husband, Kenneth Carr, in 1942 – a dashing British photographer, big game hunter and adventurer 24 years older than her. They fell in love, married and moved to the Belgian Congo where Kenneth tried his hand at gold prospecting. She packed four cotton dresses and a lifetime supply of cold cream. “Oh, it was so beautiful,” Mrs Carr told The Inquirer in a 1998 profile. “It was so African; you could hear monkeys at night. There was a 50-foot waterfall on the property. Sometimes, elephants would roam by.”2

However, the marriage fell apart in 1955 -- partly due to the age difference and Rosamond’s desperate desire to have a family, whereas Kenneth didn’t want children. But one love in her life never seemed to change: that was for Rwanda and its people.

After the divorce, Rosamond went on to become a successful businesswoman. She loved flowers, and bought a 270-acre plantation called Mugongo which exported flowers commercially. She also planted a formal English garden around the ivy- covered stone cottage that became her new home. A friend of that time, Susan Southwick, recalled that Rosamond’s beauty and sense of style never abandoned her, despite the hardships of living in rural Rwanda. “She was a gracious, refined lady,” said Southwick’s husband Michael (onetime U.S. consular officer in Rwanda in the early 1970’s). “Very friendly, very hospitable. She was like somebody from another era in that sense.” 3

“The long road into her house was like a tunnel of blue hydrangeas,” Susan Southwick recalled. “Her gardens were absolutely beautiful.” Rosamond frequently entertained visitors, and became close friends with the American researcher Dian Fossey, who lived and worked among the gorillas on the volcanic mountain nearby. Fossey died in 1985, presumably at the hand of poachers.

At that time Rosamond raised money to send young Rwandans to secondary school and university. She had a genuine love and concern for the people around her. A neice, Ann Halsey Roehrs (who helped her write her autobiography, Land of a Thousand Hills) called her aunt a ‘renegade’ who started a school on the plantation and operated a makeshift medical clinic from her back door.4

Massacre in Rwanda

Rosamond had lived in Rwanda for more than 40 years when a mass slaughter of ethnic Tutsis by militant Hutus began – during which time more than a million people died. She tried to protect her Tutsi neighbors from roving bands of Hutu killers. When the spear-wielding mob demanded to know the whereabouts of yet another potential victim, Carr exploded. “You don’t mind killing old women,” she said. “If you want to kill someone, here I am. Kill me!”5

In 1994 she was forced to flee on five minutes’ notice – evacuated by Belgian Marines. However, once in the United States, the televised images of the violence haunted her. There were 300,000 orphaned and abandoned children in Rwanda. This brought her to a decision that would change her life and those of many others, forever.

Four months later she was back in Rwanda and began converting a large building once used to dry flowers into an orphanage. She called the orphanage Imbabazi, meaning “a place where you will receive all the love and care a mother would give.” Indeed, over the next years more than 500 orphans would know the day to day involvement of this remarkable woman who chose to be a mother to each one.

One teenager who remembers her love is Frederic Ndabaramiye. As a young Hutu boy during the rebellion, he was ordered to help murder a busload of Tutsis. He refused and was punished by machete-wielding Hutus who cut off both his hands. However, at Imbabazi he found comfort through the love of Rosamond Carr, whom he and many others regarded as their mother.

Why do it?

We hear so much in the news about man’s inhumanity to man – something that Rosamond Carr witnessed during the massacre. But what is it that inspires an 82 year old woman to start an orphanage in a war torn country? I’ve never met Rosamond Carr, but I think if she were asked why she did it, she’d say she couldn’t NOT do it. Isn’t that the way a mother or father’s love works when they see their child in need? They don’t stop to consider the cost to themselves – something inside gives them the courage and desire to rise above the most awful circumstances for the sake of someone weaker.

As far as I know Rosamond Carr had no particular religious convictions, or at least her orphanage wasn’t founded in the name of a church or even under the auspices of a particular charitable institution. Imbabazi – “a place where you will receive all the love and care a mother would give” -- became wholly her place, because she poured a mother’s love into her life’s final work. How vital it is that we each listen to that voice or vision inside if we are called to undertake such a work. I believe that this almost superhuman love for others is given to us by a compassionate God, whether we acknowledge him or not.

“She was a true friend to the Rwandan people. She loved it – the country and the people,” Roehrs said. “She had many chances to come home, but Rwanda became her home.”6

Although the plantation went bankrupt several times, Rosamond couldn’t think of leaving, not even when facing outbreaks of violence and having to move the orphanage several times. In September 2006 she died (aged 94) at home in Rwanda, close to the children she had given her life to. She was buried on her farm in Mugongo, where the orphanage is now located. About 120 children now live in Imbabazi and it continues to operate the way Mrs Carr wanted it. For whatever regrets she may have had about her own marriage and lack of family, she clearly had no regrets about her decision to show a mother’s love to the children of Rwanda.

  1. Obituary: “Rosamund Carr, devoted to Africa”, by Douglas Martin, The New York Times, Oct. 6, 2006
  2. “R. Carr, 94: Founded Rwandan Orphanage”, Philadelphia Daily News, October 1, 2006
  3. “Rosamond Carr, 94: Founder of Rwandan Orphanage” by Joe Holley, Washington Post, October 4, 2006
  4. “R. Carr, 94: Founded Rwandan Orphanage”, Philadelphia Daily News, October 1, 2006
  5. Obituary: “Rosamund Carr, devoted to Africa”, by Douglas Martin, The New York Times, Oct. 6, 2006
  6. “R. Carr, 94: Founded Rwandan Orphanage”, Philadelphia Daily News, October 1, 2006

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