Rwanda looks to a tech revolution

20 years after genocide, African nation will commemorate '94 massacres while attempting to transform itself

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BUSOGO, Rwanda -- The Rwandan genocide still shadows Immaculee Mukamusoni's life. Ethnic Hutu militias killed her mother, father and siblings, and for the next two decades she had little support. Today, she and her husband work as day laborers on a farm to provide for their five children.

But this past week, she boarded a bus that she hopes will transform her African world. Outfitted with 20 laptops, it is a central part of a government initiative to bring technology to impoverished rural areas. Over the next two weeks, Ms. Mukamusoni will learn programs such as Microsoft Word and Excel, and will learn how to access websites and send email.

"It's been 20 years, but we continue to struggle," said Ms. Mukamusoni, 38, who has long sought full-time work. "I hope this knowledge will help our life."

Rwanda will commemorate the genocide's 20th anniversary today with solemn ceremonies to remember the more than 800,000 people -- mostly ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus -- butchered over 100 days by the nation's Hutu majority. With resentment still lingering, the government is in the midst of an ambitious effort to transform itself, the economy and society.

The goal of Rwandan President Paul Kagame is nothing short of making tiny, landlocked Rwanda a regional Silicon Valley that will attract investors and multinational companies. That, he hopes, will speed Rwanda's transition from an agriculture-based economy to a services-oriented one and help build up a middle class and a new generation of tech-savvy Rwandans who value national identity over ethnicity.

Creating a more equal society, Rwandans hope, will prevent the ignorance, hatred and envy that fueled the 1994 massacres.

"One of the ingredients of genocide is poverty, and addressing it is an important part of the rebuilding of the country," said Jean Philbert Nsengimana, Rwanda's minister for youth and information and communications technology.

A more digitally literate country will help create more accountability and transparency among leaders, mitigate communal tensions, and prevent Rwandans from being manipulated into killing again, he said.

But Rwanda's aspirations face significant hurdles. Mr. Kagame's rule has been criticized as increasingly authoritarian, and the United States and other nations have warned about a lack of freedoms and the targeting of political opponents and journalists. Last month, Rep. Edward Royce, R-Calif., who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged Secretary of State John Kerry in a letter "to closely re-evaluate U.S. engagements with Rwanda," especially when considering "future assistance."

In the years after the genocide, the United States and other Western donors poured billions of dollars in aid into Rwanda, driven in part by guilt for failing to act in 1994 to stop the killings. That, combined with government policies that fostered businesses and cracked down on corruption, turned Rwanda into an economic darling.

Education, health care and access to basic services expanded, and foreign investment poured in. People living below the poverty line dropped from 59 percent in 2001 to 45 percent in 2011, according to the World Bank. And between 2001 and 2012, growth averaged 8.1 percent per year.

Today, the streets of the capital, Kigali, are lined with new construction, elegant boutique hotels and fancy restaurants. The roads are among the best on the continent. The nation consistently tops lists as the least corrupt and most business-friendly in Africa.

But Rwanda's staunchest allies are now voicing their displeasure at Mr. Kagame's policies. Last month, South Africa expelled three Rwandan diplomats, linking them to murders and attempted murders of Rwandan dissidents living in exile. Mr. Kagame has denied any involvement but has also publicly branded them traitors, adding that Rwanda has a right to defend itself against those who "betray" it.

The United States, Britain and other Western donors have partially suspended aid to Rwanda for its backing of rebels in neighboring Congo, which Mr. Kagame has denied. In a report last year, the World Bank warned that the cut in foreign assistance could lead to "aid shock" that could reduce economic growth and slow progress in combating poverty.

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