Elizabeth Peters's novel, Borrower of the Night (Book World, Sept. 30, 1990), is in print and available in paperback from Tor Books. (Published 2/24/91)

AFRICA: Dispatches From A Fragile Continent By Blaine Harden Norton. 333 pp. $22.50

THIS IS a solid, accessible introduction to the realities of modern Africa. Blaine Harden was chief of The Washington Post's Nairobi Bureau in the late 1980s and The Post wisely allowed him the time to get out of the cities and experience traditional rural life. Written in clear, expository journalese, the book begins vividly with Harden's descent of the River Zaire from Kisangani (Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," Naipaul's Bend in the River) to Kinshasa -- undoubtedly one of the most amazing boat trips on the planet. Throughout, Harden is sensitive to the immense cultural and economic gulf between himself and his beat, at one point describing himself as a kind of voyeur among appalling misery. Interviewing an Ethiopian woman whose baby has just died of hunger, he notices that she seems to have leprosy. "I grew up in a small town called Moses Lake in Washington State, where nobody's fingertips had ever fallen off," he writes. "Leprosy was a curiosity from the Bible. People died properly in Moses Park, when they were old or in car wrecks."

Harden moves smoothly from the particular to the general and has a good eye for the telling detail. Noticing the pulverized guard rail that separates oncoming traffic on the expressway from Lagos to Ibadan, for instance, he realizes that it is a perfect metaphor for the collision between modern urban and traditional rural Africa. There are informative sections on ritual murder, on how divorce hits hardest in patrilineal societies (because the children belong to the husband's clan), and fascinating footnotes like the one on page 94: "Researchers on biomechanics have found that African women can carry up to 20 percent of their body weight on their heads while burning no more energy than if they were carrying nothing at all."

Three subjects get the bulk of attention. Harden examines the traditional structures -- tribe, clan, extended family -- that have an inextricable hold on every African. A prominent Nairobi lawyer renounces his tribe as "lazy and primitive," but his clan wins the court battle with his widow over the right to bury him. The 7-foot- 3/4-inch professional basketball player Manute Bol, a Dinka from the Sudd, the immense swamp in southern Sudan (not, by the way "the largest . . . in the world"; the largest is the Pantanal do Mato Grosso, in Brazil) sends most of his earnings to help his people back home resettle because of the civil war. Ancient tribal enmities are very much alive on the continent (the latest being the revenge in Liberia on Samuel Doe's tribe, the Krahn), and Harden describes numerous flare-ups.

The fullest coverage is given to the Darwinian political system, dominated by a Big Man under continual threat of removal. Harden reports that there have been at least 70 successful coups in sub-Saharan Africa since 1957. The Big Man survives by force and by shrewd appeasement and playing off of tribal factions, by constantly reshuffling his cabinet, which serves two purposes: to keep anyone else from becoming too powerful, and to give everybody an opportunity to enrich himself. He is expected, indeed obligated, to play the role: to erect monuments like the cathedral in Yamassoukro, the home town of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, whose dome is bigger than St. Peter's; to create sinecures in the bloated state bureaucracy for his kin and fellow tribe members.

The big men Harden profiles vary mainly in degree of venality. Sese Seko Mobutu has skimmed off an estimated $5 billion from his "kleptocracy" in Zaire. Harden attributes the ubiquitous corruption in that country, the institutionalized matabish or bribe, to Mobutu setting the tone, but the same system can be found deep in the forest of the Zaire basin among people who have never heard of Mobutu. (The most brazen attempt at extortion I have run into in my African travels was not in Zaire, but in the Central African Republic, where several men had dropped a tree across the road and were willing to move it out of the way for a consideration.)

Kenneth Kaunda, the only leader Zambia has known, is portrayed as well-intentioned and charming. He invites the American ambassador to play on his private golf course. When the ambassador's drive hooks, Kaunda teases, "I'm going to report to President Reagan that you've gone left." A copper boom fueled dazzling progress in Zambia. Schools, roads, hospitals were built. Farmers left their shambas and struck out for the city. But since the price of copper bottomed out, things in Zambia have been getting nasty. Torture, imprisonment and Asian-bashing are tarnishing Kaunda's humanist record.

Liberia's Doe, recently reported killed by rebels, comes across as a neo-grand monster in the tradition of Amin and Bokassa, Daniel arap Moi of Kenya as paranoid and greedy. "The country is hanging by its fingernails," Harden reports.

The all-too-often ill-conceived efforts of First World aid agencies to improve conditions in Africa -- settling nomads, for instance, in country too arid for sedentary survival -- receives an appropriately ironic examination. The bleak picture Harden paints is only going to get bleaker, as the aid agencies direct increasing attention to Eastern Europe, where they see a better return on their investment. But in the end Harden sees some hope. He finds a resilient vitality and joie de vivre that may yet transcend all the horrible statistics, and this is the impression that many visitors to that majestic, heartbreaking continent have left with. Alex Shoumatoff is the author of nine books, most of them about Africa and Brazil, including the just published "The World Is Burning."