KIGALI, Rwanda — When President Bush came here last month on his five-nation Africa tour, he paid a solemn visit to the site where 250,000 victims of the 1994 genocide are buried, laying a wreath and strolling quietly along a row of concrete slabs marking mass graves.
But government officials here say Bush's more important act that day was something else: He signed a deal to promote bilateral U.S.-Rwandan investment.
Rwanda hasn't forgotten the genocide, but it's moving forward, and 14 years later this tiny central African nation boasts one of the most stable and rapidly expanding economies in the region. Poverty and illiteracy are declining, immunization rates are up, HIV and malaria have been dramatically curtailed, and new industries from coffee to information technology are experiencing sudden booms.
The country's rebirth under President Paul Kagame — a bookish former rebel leader — was noted last year by the Ibrahim Index, a scale that rates African countries on political and economic freedoms. It called Rwanda the most improved country over the past five years.
"After the genocide everyone was down, and there was a lot of confusion. Now we are on the right track," said Kainamura Issa, co-founder of Index, a local magazine that covers the burgeoning technology sector.
Under Kagame, the government has pumped money into the country's roads and electricity networks and slashed red tape on businesses in a bid to lure foreign investors. Since 1994, the country's economy has grown at a robust 6 percent clip annually.
Lured perhaps in part by its tragedy-to-triumph story, American corporate giants have been drawn to this tiny, hilly nation, where 8 million people are crammed into a space smaller than Maryland.
Starbucks and Costco have signed exclusive deals with Rwandan coffee growers to sell their smooth, aromatic beans in U.S. stores. Government officials say Microsoft has floated a plan to equip the country's Senate chamber so that lawmakers can draft and edit legislation electronically.
"There is a wave of enthusiasm right now for Rwanda," said Josh Ruxin, a Columbia University public health professor who lives in Rwanda.
Rwanda's upward trajectory is belied by its sleepy-looking capital. Kigali, a city of about 1 million people, has the feel of a quiet small town, with orderly, tree-lined streets that meet at intersections where drivers use their turn signals more than their horns. Men hawking cell phone airtime run up and wave the scratch cards in people's faces, but they plead for a sale with their eyes, not their lungs.
The silence is subtle but unmistakable. It's as if everyone has a secret.
It's tempting to ascribe the feeling to the memory of the genocide, but many in Kigali say it has more to do with the current political climate.
To restore order after 1994 — when Hutu militias slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus over 100 days — Kagame's Tutsi-led government assumed complete control.
Kagame has a reputation as a micro-manager, overseeing everything from the AIDS policy to something he has dubbed "Vision 2020," a high-minded if quixotic plan to turn this overwhelmingly rural nation into a regional hub for information technology.
More worryingly, say human rights groups, he has imposed strict laws over free speech to stop people from inciting ethnic hatred, and some journalists who have published critical stories have been beaten, jailed or driven into exile.
The U.S. State Department last year cited reports that Rwandan security forces engaged in extrajudicial killings and arbitrarily detained and arrested countless people, including street children, vagrants and Jehovah's Witnesses. But the department's annual human rights report also noted that police officials fired more than 70 officers for indiscipline and formed a unit within the police force to investigate citizen complaints of abuse and corruption.
"Significant human rights abuses occurred," the report concluded, "although there were important improvements in some areas."
Rwandan officials prefer to discuss the country's record on AIDS. Experts say the country has made a turnaround thanks to the capable management of donor funding, including more than $300 million from Bush's global anti-AIDS program. The plan has helped put 50,000 Rwandan AIDS patients on life-saving drugs, although an additional 25,000 still lack access.
Six years ago, the U.N. estimated that 8.9 percent of Rwandan adults were living with HIV; by last year that had fallen to 3 percent.
The changes are evident in a redbrick HIV clinic in Nyagasambu, perched on a verdant hillside a half-hour's drive from the capital, Kigali. The clinic was built by the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based charity, with Bush administration funds. Now dozens of HIV patients from the surrounding villages troop in for regular check-ups.
"Now we have the medicines we need; we have the lab equipment we need," said Theogene Ndayambaje, the clinic's assistant administrator. Motioning to a gaggle of brightly clad women waiting for their check-ups, he added, "Three years ago, they would not have lived."
Rwanda has also expanded access to primary health care in its 438 public health facilities around the country. Nearly all children have been immunized against basic diseases, among the best rates in Africa.
"In the next five years, it's conceivable there will essentially be universal access to health care," said Ruxin, the Columbia professor. "They still have a way to go, but that's astonishing."
Read Shashank Bengali's blog, Somewhere in Africa, at http://washingtonbureau.typepad.com/nairobi/