BUJUMBURA, BURUNDI -- Daily life in this small nation in the highlands of central Africa is infected with memory.

On main highways there are scores of roadblocks where soldiers of the ruling Tutsi tribe check the zonal residence papers of Hutu farmers. In 1972, the previous Tutsi-controlled government systematically exterminated about 100,000 educated Hutus. Restrictions on travel prevent the Hutus, who outnumber the Tutsi six to one, from gathering to plot vengeance.

On back roads in the mountains above Lake Tanganyika, teen-age girls run in terror at the sight of a car filled with white people. Local people have fled the whites since the Belgian colonial era, from 1916 to 1962, when whites rounded them up for forced labor.

On Radio Burundi there are daily denunciations of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic priests and "their white racist god . . . destroyed Burundi culture," claims the radio. That claim is a rationale for vengeance on the church. In the past year, priests have been jailed, Catholic schools have been nationalized and weekday masses have been banned.

Burundi is a little-known nation of 5 million people, a byzantine product of the wrongs of the Belgians and the wrongs of the Africans. It is a place where, as with many African nations, the memory of colonial abuses have a powerful resonance and the legacy of tribalism sways national policy.

This, combined with the good intentions of western countries that prop up a tribal regime with more than $150 million a year in aid, comprises a country where nothing is quite as it appears from the outside.

The Belgian-dominated Catholic Church has too dark a history in this country to be cast as an innocent victim. Nor is the present Tutsi regime an unregenerate villain.

The regime continues to practice its own rigid brand of tribal apartheid, a system that the leaders of black Africa choose to ignore, even as they travel the world to condemn white-minority rule in South Africa.

Yet, by pursuing limited reforms that help the Hutu, the government has proved itself to be something more than the complacent heir to a genocidal tradition.

But Burundi's past has not prevented it from becoming a favorite of donor countries and lending institutions such as the World Bank. In part, money flows because Burundi is needy. It is the world's 11th poorest country and one of Africa's most densely populated.

But donors also point out another reason why aid levels have soared here. Burundi's government, they say, is far more efficient than most others in Africa. They say aid projects work in this country: roads are built, electric lines are strung, equipment is well-maintained and theft is not a problem. They say they can send home reports about projects that are on schedule and money that is efficiently spent.

"Tutsis are good managers," said an agriculture specialist here. "When they make a decision, they stick with it."

Donors prefer not to talk about it, Tutsis deny it and Hutus are not even supposed to think about it -- but Burundi's future is inextricably tied to its bloody past. African historian Rene Lemarchand describes the legacy of the 1972 killing as "an unprecedented potential for ethnic hatred." Memory of the killing and fear of Hutu revenge help explain both the good works of the Tutsi government and its recent harsh repression of the church.

The possibility of Hutu revenge also raises questions about the long-term value of donor investment in a government whose ruling philosophy echoes that of South Africa. No one in this country is permitted to admit the obvious. The government declared this month that Hutu-Tutsi conflict "is nonexistent in Burundi." Many Burundians and long-time expatriates are reluctant even to say the tribal names "Hutu" and "Tutsi."

Instead, they speak of the Short Ones -- the Hutu, who make up 85 percent of the population and who are mostly subsistence farmers of Bantu origin. And they speak of the Tall Ones -- the Tutsi, who make up 15 percent of the population and who were once cattle people, probably of Ethiopian origin.

The tall ones -- many of whom are taller than six feet, while most Hutus are well under six feet -- have been Burundi's elite for four centuries.

The most visible, most publicized recent victims of government repression here are foreign missionaries and members of the Catholic Church. About 65 percent of Burundi's 5 million people are Catholic.

The Tutsi regime has shut down church newspapers, canceled religious radio programs and banned rural prayer meetings. This spring 3,000 Catholic lay catechists were ordered to stop preaching and giving communion in churches. Late last year a Catholic program providing primary schooling for 300,000 rural children was canceled by government decree.

Five years ago there were more than 500 Belgian priests in Burundi. Now there are about 30, and by the end of this year, all of them are expected to be forced out. That will leave 107 Burundi-born priests and 60 nuns for the country's 1,200 churches.

Pope John Paul II last fall said the crackdown "seems to indicate a deliberate attempt to discredit the church and its pastors through accusations, insinuations and threats in order to marginalize the Catholic community."

Catholic leaders and human rights groups have been quick to see a connection between suppression of the church and tribal politics.

In neighboring Rwanda, where majority Hutus were successful in overthrowing a minority Tutsi government in 1961, the Catholic Church played a crucial leadership role. Tutsi leaders are said to be haunted by Rwanda's precedent.

"The church serving Burundi necessarily serves the Hutu majority more than the Tutsi," said one diplomat. "This means the church de facto is a threat."

The Catholic Church in Burundi, however, does not have an impressive record either as a defender of human rights or as an institution committed to improving the life of Hutu peasants.

Before the country's independence in 1962, Belgian Catholic priests conscripted Hutu tribesmen to build churches. Burundian priests were not allowed to sleep or eat in the same rooms with the "white fathers." The church made no attempt to democratize the centuries-old feudal system under which the Tutsi played lords to the Hutu serfs.

Nor were gifted students encouraged to go abroad for education. At independence in 1962, after nearly half a century of Belgian colonial rule, Burundi did not have a single college graduate.

The church made little effort to draw world attention to tribal genocide in 1972.

One prominent Burundian businessman here argues that the church was an instrument of Belgian colonial control, both before and after independence. It is a view shared by most western diplomats and many Burundian clerics.

"The Belgian missionaries never accepted the independent government. The church kept too much power over education and health care," said the businessman. "The government could not do anything without asking the church's permission."

A senior western diplomat here, who is critical of the harshness of the government's recent actions against the Catholics, says there is a measure of hypocrisy in the church's complaints.

"The church is rallying the Hutu to defend its own prerogatives, not those of the Hutu," said the diplomat.

The most visible villain of the campaign against the Catholic Church is the military government of President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, a 41-year-old Army colonel who makes no secret of his anticlerical feelings.

"The president of this country is convinced that the Catholics are trying to kick him out," said a diplomat here who has personal dealings with Bagaza.

Since coming to power in a bloodless coup in 1976, the Tutsi leader has consolidated his power by surrounding himself with senior military officers and security officials who are all Tutsis.

Tutsis dominate Bagaza's Cabinet, the National Assembly and the university system. Thirteen of 15 provincial governors are Tutsi, as are about 96 percent of the country's soldiers. Most businessmen are Tutsis.

Yet, even as Bagaza enforces tribal apartheid in the central government and continues to dismember the Catholic Church, he has insisted on land, economic and educational reforms that offer rural Hutus unprecedented opportunities.

In an attempt to heal the wounds of the tribal massacre, Bagaza has invited home the 150,000 or so Hutus who fled to neighboring countries after 1972. Perhaps 20,000 have returned. Former Tutsi overlords have been forced to give land to Hutu peasants, who now have proprietary rights over what they till. Landlord-tenant relationships were abolished.

In the past year, as part of a $50 million structural adjustment loan by the World Bank, the government eliminated import monopolies held by Tutsi businessmen and raised producer prices for farmers -- mostly Hutu -- by up to 30 percent. The program last year boosted annual economic growth, which had averaged less than 1.9 percent since 1980, to 3.3 percent.

"What Bagaza has allowed is a program that increases the purchasing power of the farmers, who are mostly Hutu, while limiting the purchasing power of the city people, who are mostly Tutsi," said a western economist here.

The economist said that Bagaza also has committed his western-oriented government to support an ambitious World Bank program for universal primary education and widespread vocational training.

Bagaza has accepted the bank's argument, the economist said, that Burundi must use financial incentive to encourage 2 million Hutus to give up subsistence agriculture and turn to small-scale manufacturing.

Bagaza's egalitarian reforms have threatening implications for a minority government that apparently has no intention of sharing power.

In an interview here, one highly regarded Tutsi business leader said confidently that "if people have many opportunities, they tend to be more tolerant. . . . If Hutu farmers get enough income they are happy."

A few minutes later the businessman, without seeing any contradiction, said: "If farmers get more education, if they get rich, they will demand democracy. It is a dynamic of democracy that no one can prevent."

The donor governments and multinational lending agencies that are helping to pay for Bagaza's reforms say they hope economic growth will somehow smooth Burundi's transition to a more democratic government. Specifics about how this transition might occur do not exist.

"The Tutsis realize that the time bomb exists. They are trying to ease the situation by expanding the economic pie," said a diplomat here. "If it works, Bagaza could have an awfully long breathing space before the Hutu demand revenge."