KIGALI, Rwanda — Raking through the knee-high grass on his tea farm to clear fallen tree branches, Ezekiel Shinga marvels at how life has changed in his country in the 22 years after the genocide that made this tiny east African county a watchword for horror and brutality around the world.
“I think no one could have predicted the strides Rwanda has made in the past two decades,” said Mr. Shinga, whose farm is in the southern district of Nyaruguru. “Everything in this country has changed. People own businesses, and the majority here are tea farmers. At least everyone has income. There’s peace, and neighbors now love each other.”
That may be a slight exaggeration, but the regeneration of the Rwandan economy and the normality that has returned to everyday life is nothing short of remarkable given how deep were the rifts inflicted on the social fabric here.
Mr. Shinga, a 55-year-old father of three, is an ethnic Tutsi. Ethnic Hutu extremists slaughtered his first wife and the rest of the family during the 1994 massacres. But today he lives and works side by side with his Hutu neighbors, who make up an estimated 85 percent of the population.
Estimates of the numbers of minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus who lost their lives in the killings range from 800,000 to 2 million, according to human rights groups. An estimated 200,000 Hutus murdered and raped their neighbors, often in systematic local campaigns using machetes.
The genocide began following the death of former President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira when their plane was shot down over the capital of Kigali on April 6, 1994. Both leaders were ethnic Hutus who had been negotiating a peaceful settlement to ongoing tensions between the two groups that Hutu extremists had opposed.
Since then, Rwanda has made stunning progress under President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi and former rebel leader who took power in July 1994 after bringing an end to the genocide.
“This is the new Rwanda, one of the cleanest countries in the world,” said Liliana Mahoro, a Hutu contractor who supervises building projects in the capital. “Rwanda has developed very quickly because of the good unity and leadership we have right now.”
Some say the progress has come at a price: Critics have accused the authoritarian Mr. Kagame of human right violations, including the mysterious disappearances of political opponents, repressive treatment of journalists and extrajudicial killings and persecution of critics.
But in late 2015 Rwandan voters approved amending the country’s constitution to allow Mr. Kagame to serve three more terms, meaning he could be in charge until 2034.
Mr. Kagame “is a bad man because he is a dictator,” said Mr. Shinga. “But he is also a good man because he has united all of us and developed our nation.”
Relying on tea
Life expectancy in Rwanda has doubled since 1994 to more than 60 years, according to the World Bank, and a new U.N. survey predicts it will reach 70 by 2030 if present trends continue. Economic growth consistently reaches 8 percent annually. The rate of deaths of children under age five has plummeted from 230 per 1,000 to 55.
Exports are rising and economic and fiscal policy are promoting new growth, John Rwangombwa, governor of the National Bank of Rwanda, told AllAfrica.com earlier this month. Kigali last summer opened an impressive new $300 million convention center, hosting the African Union summit as one of its first events. The complex includes a 292-room five-star hotel, a conference hall and an office park.
“The economy continues to perform well but at a low pace compared with the corresponding period of 2015,” he said. “Still, it remains in line with the projected growth of 6 percent for 2016.”
Today, Rwanda is predominantly a country of rural farmers with few natural resources.
About 90 percent of the population works in agriculture. But tea and coffee exports are soaring. Rwanda is one of the leading tea producers in the world, providing crucial foreign currency that has helped build schools and other infrastructure.
“We now depend on tea to earn income,” said Mr. Shinga. “We use the money from tea to educate our children and improve our lives.”
Education and economic growth are the most effective ways to prevent a return of violence like that in 1994, he added.
“We innocently slaughtered our brothers and sisters because we thought they were wealthier than us,” said Mr. Shinga, referring to Tutsis who had historically belonged to the Rwandan elite. “Every tribe wanted to control the government and be above the other. But today we are all equal. Everyone is working hard to achieve his or her dreams without any discrimination.”
The Rwanda government is encouraging farmers to embrace tea growing through low-interest loans and other incentives, said Nyaruguru Mayor Francois Habitegeko.
“We are putting more efforts in the tea sector because we believe it has the potential to transform people’s lives by generating more revenue and creating more jobs,” said Mr. Habitegeko. “This is going to improve our economy and make us forget what happened two decades ago.”
Rwanda has also served as a magnet for international donors and investors, and has revived the tourism sector following the dark days of the genocide. Hotels like Kigali Serena Hotel, Grand Legacy Hotel, Kigali Marriott Hotel and Hotel Intercontinental have sprung up around the country.
“We receive a lot of tourists in the country, and this always boosts our economy,” said Jeremie Kagame, the manager of a small hotel on the outskirts of Kigali. “Our people also receive jobs, and this brings development to our country.”
Housing estates are going up in Kigali amid an economic boom, as diaspora Rwandans return and newly wealthy businessmen capitalize on the relative peace in the city.
Hutu and Tutsi laborers can been seen working side by side on construction projects. Rwanda’s elegant colonial villas, left in ruins during streets fighting of the 1990s, have been renovated. Roads have been built and Kigali International Airport has been revamped.
The country won’t repeat the tragedy of 1994, said Ms. Mahoro, the Hutu building contractor.
“I’m a Hutu, but I work and live with Tutsis right now,” she said. “We have forgiven each other and we are working to rebuild our country.”