“I had a farm in Africa.”
I swear this is how Rosamond Carr began her story. We had traveled to one of the farthest points in Rwanda to see a genocide site, and we were told that if we were going to be over there, we should stop in and see Ms. Carr who ran an orphanage. She was well known for she was the oldest consistently present white person in the country (even Pres. Bill Clinton buzzed through on his visit). Over her 30+ years spent there, she had lived through a great deal: regime change, revolution, civil war, genocide, poverty, regime change, revolution, regime change and civil war. Recently, her plantation/farm had been taken from her during one of these events. She currently lived in a house provided by Anheiser Busch – the beer people. I have no idea why.
We actually had a hard time getting to Ms. Carr, having been directed to another old white woman in the region. This was pretty embarrassing - actually. As we rolled up and were introduced to the roar of several hundred kids penned up behind a fence and playing soccer (for their protection or ours), we knew from Ms. Carr’s picture on the cover of her book that we had the wrong white lady. She seemed to realize this immediately; with a shrug she said that Ms. Carr was up the road – pointing dismissively. So as not to offend her, we asked if we could visit with her anyway. Surprised, she gestured to her man Godfree (not his real name) and we had some tea.
Evidently, she too had been there for quite some time (not as long as Ms. Carr but for a while). Her orphanage was larger than Ms. Carr’s. But, lacking a best-selling book and the attending cache, her facility was less well-funded (Ms. Carr received large sums of money). Interestingly, she was not bitter.
After touring the facility, we pushed on, laughing about the fact that to Rwandans one ol’ white woman might be the same as another.
Meeting Ms. Carr was a different matter entirely. She was from a different era. She came to Rwanda from a high-profile socialite family on the East coast of the United States with her husband. He later left her. Stubborn and not yet ready to leave the country, she decided to stay. I swear this sounds like Out of Africa, the more I think about it. There didn’t appear to be any more passion between her and her husband than between Meryl Streep and Robert Redford who were both a bit too stiff for my taste but I digress.
As for the meeting, Ms. Carr had it all down to a tee. You came in, met by her man Godfree (not his real name either) – a polite gentleman with white gloves, a white coat, black pants and no shoes (I kid you not). We introduced ourselves and then were invited to sit. Godfree brought tea and Belgian chocolates. By that time, we had been in Rwanda a while and needed a shot of sugar, so we politely wolfed them down.
The drill was simple. Ms. Carr literally turned to each of us and said “tell me your story” – we evidently were supposed to skip the boring parts. Each of us complied and she delicately sat there, sipped her tea and actually appeared to listen.
It was all pretty routine for her until someone in our group talked about where he was from – New Hampshire. At that moment, the whole interaction changed. It was as if there was a secret door that had been opened and only Ms. Carr and our colleague went through as the rest of us watched outside the metal gate. It was classic: he dropped a name or mentioned a store (secret handshake noted), which caused her to glow referencing someone/someplace and they provided additional information about how it changed or stayed the same. Never before had I seen the Northeastern uppercrust recognition dance/ritual revealed. Ms. Carr seemed overjoyed that she could once again touch the shores of home with “her” people – she had not been back in quite some time.
Hearing it all, her stay in Rwanda had been quite something. She talked of the troubles she had lived through and she would occasionally let something slip about how “they” (the Rwandans) needed “our” (Western/civilized) assistance or how “they” tended to have difficulties with one another. Every now and then, Godfree would check on us.
Godfree invariably brought me back from Ms. Carr’s romantic meanderings. Indeed, I sat there somewhat overtaken by the whole affair. Part of me wanted to slap this ol’ racist woman; part of me wanted to listen to her tales of violence and survival; and, part of me wanted to have another piece of chocolate. I took the latter two options. As I mentioned, I had been in the country for a while by then and needed a lil’ something sweet, a fix; my sense of righteousness was thus depleted. Hard to fight “the man,” or “the woman” in this case, while hungry, hot and tired.
Truth be told, I was also caught by Ms. Carr’s charm. She seemed vivacious despite her age and it was infectious because she appeared to transport all of us back to her time – well, not completely for I realized that if we went back too far I would end up with Godfree in the kitchen looking at da company as well as da chocolate from a crack in the door.
When she was done with us, Ms. Carr rose, Godfree appeared from thin air, and we signed our names in her book. We requested photos, which she granted, posing demurely, gracefully and professionally as though she did this everyday (which, of course, she did). Mine is provided above.
Walking out the door, you realized that while she was in Africa, she was very much out of it. In many ways, the world she had known changed. Now, the weapons were bigger, migration on a larger scale, desires for rebuilding after the violence more grandiose. At the same time, it was clear that the world she occupied had not changed at all. Godfree had probably been serving her for years and she had a beautiful home in the middle of an amazing valley – on lease from a multi-national corporation.
She had a farm in Africa; now the farm seemed to have her.
Come to think of it, we never did see those damn kids. Makes you wonder.
Note 1: I am sure there were kids and an orphanage.
Note 2: Ms. Carr passed in 2006.