Rosamond Carr seems haunted as she gazes at the now bare walls and empty bookshelves of her plantation home in Rwanda, where for four decades she entertained all manner of adventurers and aristocrats. But her gloom lifts when she spies an ecstatic 5-year-old boy bounding toward her. "Mupara!" cries Carr, 87, bending to envelop the child. "Oh, my Mupara!"

Mupara was one of the children Carr saved after the genocidal war in 1994 that left an estimated half-million Rwandans dead, turned 2 million into refugees and reduced her own home to a looted shell. In December 1994, a mere five months after most of the carnage had ended, Carr converted a building on her flower plantation into the Imbabazi Orphanage. When Mupara came to her, he was beaten and nearly strangled to death. "He'd been lying on the body of a" dead woman who wasn't his mother," Carr says. "We didn't expect him to live." At Imbabazi—Rwandan for "the care a mother would give her child"—Mupara thrived. "One of the few regrets in my life is that I never had children of my own," says Carr. "Today I am blessed with 110 of them."

The orphanage is only the latest chapter in Carr's extraordinary half-century in Africa. "It's been a life of almost unimaginable hardships and enviable luxury," says Ann Howard Halsey, Carr's niece and coauthor of her recent memoir Land of a Thousand Hills: My Life in Rwanda. "She has never had electricity or a telephone, yet she has never had to cook a meal or iron a blouse."

The oldest of three children of William Gurden Halsey, a Wall Street bond trader, and Rosamond Howard, an aristocratic Southerner, Carr grew up on a South Orange, N.J., estate attending private schools and society parties. "I used to spend my study time writing love stories," she says. "The male heroes were all blond with gray eyes and called Give."

But when Carr was 17, in 1929, the stock market crashed and her father lost his fortune. She went to work as a fashion illustrator for Manhattan department stores. At 29, she met her Give—Kenneth Carr, a dashing British explorer and big-game hunter 24 years her senior. They married in 1942, but he didn't want children and their union, Carr says, "was passionless."

Still, she loved her husband. So when he suggested in 1949 that they move from New York to the Belgian Congo, where he could prospect for minerals, Carr packed four cotton dresses, a pith helmet and "a lifetime supply of cold cream" and with her husband and their Irish terrier, Sheila, boarded a cargo ship. From the moment she chugged up the storied Congo River on a paddle-wheel steamboat, Carr's life took on cinematic proportions.

The couple worked for an Italian, managing his pyrethrum (a daisy-like flower containing a naturally occurring insecticide) plantation in the Congo. But Kenneth was often away on safari, and the marriage was deteriorating. In 1953, when the Italian owner needed someone to run Mugongo, his Rwandan plantation, Carr, without asking her husband, applied for the job. "He said it was improper, unseemly and I was utterly incapable of handling such an enterprise on my own," Carr says.

She went anyway. Mugongo is situated in Rwanda's lush Lake Kivu region. With its volcanic peaks and white sandy beaches, the area was then a favorite playground for wealthy Europeans. Carr managed a staff of 289 and inspected the white-tipped flower fields on foot several hours each day. She had help from 17-year-old houseboy Sembagare Munyamboneza, who has become her closest confidant and codirector of the orphanage. She chased away herds of elephants that chomped blissfully on her profits and met with Batwa pygmies, whose pottery she loved. But she also dined with politicians at the presidential palace and watched mountain gorillas play with famed zoologist Dian Fossey. (In the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, which starred Sigourney Weaver as Fossey, Carr was portrayed by Julie Harris.) "Dian was very pretty," Carr says of her dear and difficult friend, who was murdered at her camp in 1985. "So all the men in the diplomatic corps would make their way up the mountain."

Though Carr and her husband were good friends, they had divorced in 1956—he died in 1981—and Carr became a rarity: a single businesswoman in Africa, in demand at the soirees of titled Europeans and some of Belgium's richest families. She swam in their pools, danced to their American jazz records and devoured endless rounds of pate de foie gras and caviar. She even fell in love again, with Cecil Bellwood, a divorced Briton who sold insurance to Belgian coffee and tea planters. He asked her to marry him and move to London. "I loved Cecil very much," Carr says, "but I had come to realize that I loved Africa more."

Most of the Europeans left in 1960, when Belgium granted independence to the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). A year later, Congolese soldiers infiltrated Rwanda a few miles from Carr's Mugongo, but she refused to leave the workers who depended on her or her menagerie of animals, which included an antelope named Betty. Through the years she entertained hundreds of strangers who came to Mugongo (of which she was now an owner) on Sundays to watch local Rwandans dance while she served refreshments. "The tourists all got free tea from 1964 to 1990—maybe that's why I went bankrupt several times!" she recalls, laughing.

In 1994, calamity struck. On April 6, Rwanda's president, a member of the Hutu tribal majority, was killed when his plane was shot down over the gardens of the presidential palace. Though his assassins were never identified, Hutu extremists unleashed a killing rampage against the Tutsi minority so vicious that it reportedly prompted one missionary to declare, "There are no devils left in hell—they are all in Rwanda." At first Carr refused to leave, even standing up to a gang of Hutu boys who had clubbed to death eight Tutsis hiding in her chicken coop. "You don't mind killing old women," she challenged them, hands on her hips. "If you want to kill someone, you can kill me!"

On April 10, however, she fled the savagery for her brother's home in New Jersey. But not for long. "Seeing the refugees on TV, I realized how much I wanted to return to Rwanda," she says. "That's when I decided to have an orphanage."

From August to December, she and her beloved Sembagare, who somehow managed to survive the bloodshed, oversaw construction of the orphanage. Today its staff numbers 20, and Carr uses her considerable charm to raise the $2,500 a month required to make ends meet—and to secure the donation of necessary extras such as stuffed teddy bears and colorful wool that the children use to crochet blankets. The 60 regular donors to the orphanage range from the Columbus Zoo in Ohio to actress Sigourney Weaver. "Those dresses are from a ritzy private school in New York!" Carr says proudly, as three little girls in black pinafores and white collars clamor for a hug. "Whenever we run out of money," she adds, "Sembagare says, 'Don't worry, God wants us to do this. Money will come.' And it always does."

So do the children. Mupara was among the lucky ones. The Red Cross located his father, the only surviving member of his family, last February. "He was so thrilled when he saw his father was alive," Carr says. "But when he realized he had to say goodbye to me, there were terrible tears. He soaked my shirt with them." On this reunion day eight months later, it is Carr who is crying. "Oh, Mupara," she says, "how are you?" In her arms, Mupara smiles.

Christina Cheakalos
Nina Biddle in Rwanda

  • Contributors:
  • Nina Biddle.