THE APPEARANCE in America of good writing

about Africa, either in fiction or fact, is rare. There seems to be a steady market for picture books, tales of life in the bush and of lovable wild animals, but not much of a demand for more serious works. As for novels, John Updike's The Coup and V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River sold better than they deserved while the best recent novel on Africa, W. T. Tyler's The Ants of God, should have attracted more attention.

Africa has been in the news more in recent years and The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times have sought to keep first-rate reporters there and have given them space in their papers. Still, the subject, like the continent, is so vast and diverse, that even an interested reader may have difficulty tying it all together.

The single image that does seem to stick in the public mind about Africa is one of disorder. This is scarcely surprising given the far-reaching political changes that have swept the continent during the past 20 years. Beneath the disorder lie the many facets of Africa's effort, against prohibitive odds, to organize first its immediate survival, then an increasing material well being and, finally, a greater sense of human fulfillment.

Selectively applying our own principles and precepts, we are frequently disappointed by, dismayed by or disapproving of what we hear from Africa. Americans have found it particularly difficult to understand or to accept the frequent penchant of post-independent Africa for socialist and Marxist-Leninist ideologies. Apart from racism, no factor has complicated the development of America's political relations with the nearly 50 new states of sub-Sahara Africa as has the matter of radical ideology.

David and Marina Ottaway have plunged into this subject in a serious effort to explain what Marxism- Leninism means in Africa and what its emerging African definition means to the United States. Afrocommunism is not an easy book to read, but it will reward those who stick with it. In a way, in fact, it is two books: at its core it is a detailed examination of the ideological experiences of Mozambique, Angola and Ethiopia. Around this original research are wrapped several splendid chapters which introduce and develop the authors' thesis of the distinct character of "Afrocommunism" and project its meaning, including its implications for U.S. policy.

Inevitably a work which covers as much historical, political and philosophical ground as this one does will provoke criticism from the specialists. There are some points which, I suppose, are open to question but none of them is of consequence as compared to the value of the book's explanation of a critical set of African attitudes.

The Ottaways clearly want to make the point that Afrocommunism is something new under the sun. They get directly to the point on page one:

"The appeal of communism (is) not only stronger than ever before on the continent but Africa's Marxists (appear) to be gaining ground rapidly with the help of massive Soviet, East German and Cuban assistance."

At the same time the authors emphasize what they describe as a "search for a new, more independent relationship between committed African Marxist-Leninist countries and the Soviet Union." Thus, by analogy to the foreign policy component of Eurocommunism, the Ottaways call the emerging stance of the African Marxist-Leninist state Afrocommunism.

This new work should enrich and surely raise the intellectual level of the partisan and ideological debate over the United States' African policies. There are positive points and hard knocks for everyone. In the latter respect the Ottaways call the testimony of one high Carter administration official on the linkage between certain African states and the communist world "dangerously ethnocentric and self-serving" and charge that his testimony "also obscured, probably deliberately, the ideological basis of these ties." Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who simply "knew virtually nothing about the affairs of sub-Sahara Africa," got off rather easily by comparison.

But the impression should not be left that this is a book about American policy toward Africa. The authors' purpose, in their own words, "is to put some order into our thinking about the varieties of African socialism and the apparent new commitment to Marxism-Leninism."

Readers will risk getting lost in the details of Mozambican communal villages, Angolan ethnic politics or the Ethiopian Derg's (the Provisional Military Administrative Council) struggle with such ideological factions as MEISON and EPRP. But it is precisely through painstaking analysis of such details that one comes to appreciate the importance which the authors attach to the impact of ideology in African politics.

The decade of the '80s will likely see the political future of southern Africa decided. Moreover, it will surely be a period of protracted, excruciating economic crisis for the continent as a whole. As these problems mount and as original independence governments pass from the scene, radical solutions will beckon. Then, as the Ottaways point out, Marxism-Leninism will offer a "grab bag of theories in which something can be found to deal with most conditions."

The appeal of Afrcommunism to African leaders, particularly in times of crisis, merits our close attention. While ultimately, as the authors point out, Afrocommunism may fail--given the imperfect fit between ideology and African conditions--we must learn to deal with it in the meanwhile. Unless we learn to distinguish more clearly, as the Ottaways would have us do, between what Marxism in Africa is and is not, and understand more about its origins and its appeal, our policy will remain vulnerable to recurrent fits of hysteria and confusion.

We can neither ignore nor control events in Africa. But we can, depending on the degree of our understanding, help make them better, as we did in Zimbabwe, or worse as we once did in Angola--and could do again. The Ottaways would have us start with the facts--and that is not a bad place to begin.