Guerrilla leader is a tricky, often burdensome, title to have to carry around. And Joshua Nkomo, the leader of the Patriotic Front that is fighting for black majority rule in Rhodesia, doesn't have the fatigues and boot-entrapped figure of a poster hero like Che Guevara.

In his hotel room here, Nkomo, a tall and hefty man, was shoeless, his black leather slip-ons by his chair. He was wearing plain, charcoal slacks, his red and blue windowpane check shirt stretched across his ample stomach.

Nkomo's voice was pentrating and shrill as he talked with the cordial ease of the neighborhood elder who prefers the front porch as a podium. No matter what his style or tone, this guerrilla leader was the voice people from the White House to community activists wanted to hear this week.

"I don't get frustrated, I don't get sour," said Nkomo, speaking of his 30 year involvement with the black nationalist groups in Africa. It has led to both imprisonment and leadership. "Smith imprisoned me for 11 years." said Nkomo, referring to Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith. "But then I talked to him. I gave the discussions a chance until I realized he hadn't changed.

Frustrations, no, but there are yearnings. Nkomo, who came to politics out of the union movement, is now 60. Young blacks, even preteenagers, Nkomo said, are joining the army by the hundreds each week.

"Like all the generals, I have been at the front but not fighting," said Nkomo, playfully using a military title to refer to his leadership. "I wish I was young. I wish the time was different. I wish this had happened when I was young. But I have to do the planning, I can't fight." A momentary regret, quickly passed.

"I wasn't interested in being the president or the liberation leader when this all started, "I have come to be associated with the problems of the struggle. I am not preoccupied with power. I set myself to work." said Nkomo.

Along with Robert Mugabe, his partner in the Patriotic Front, Nkomo directs about 7,000 guerrillas from bases in Zambia and Mozambique. Both are pressing for a plan to transfer rule of Rhodesia to the 6.7 million black citizens from the collective that represents the country's 260,000 whites. In March Prime Minister Smith and three moderate black leaders worked out an internal settlement that was rejected by Nkomo. Right now, Nkomo, the better-known of the liberation leaders, is considered the key to the future of a peaceful Rhodesia.

He had hoped this visit would be private, the fulfillment of an invitation of the Southern African Research Association. But Nkomo, like Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass before him, has a ready audience for his account of a critical political and humanitarian struggle.

"I try to explain and correct. That is important to me," said Nkomo, his massive, rotound face showing neither weariness nor frustration.

"I can't expect people to understand all the problems," he said, generously, when asked about answering the same questions at every meeting. "We (the guerrilla forces) have a smaller population than New York City."

When Nkomo walked into a meeting of local African-issue activists on Saturday afternoon, he was greeted with thunderous applause. Nkomo was dressed in a business suit, the sweat poured down his face as he stood in the pulpit of Calvary United Medthodist Church. He emphasized his position: The Smith internal settlement is a sellout; the Anglo-American initiatives are outdated, and sovereign nationals have a right to decide their own allies, from the East or West.

As Ngomo left by a side entrance, the majority of the 200 people gathered shouted, "A Luta Continua," the Portuguese for "The Struggle Continues."

"He was very clear," said Sylvia Hill, a University of the District of Columbia professor and one of the meeting's organizers. "I felt he was very honest and he said he was touched at the opportunity to talk to working people."

Fifteen years ago, when Nkomo, then a nationalist party leader, first visited the United States, he had more opportunities to mix with ordinary people. He misses that interaction. "I stayed in the townships, in Harlem, never in hotels like this," said Nkomo, who stayed this time at the Hyatt-Regency hotel. "The people now are much more relaxed, the presence of blacks is natural. But I don't have a chance to see how the working-class people are doing."

When Nkomo wants to emphasize a point, he slaps his hand with a simply carved stick - A gift from his prison inmates on his 55th birthday.

"Everything has seemed hopeless at times. But I never forgot the cause was just," said Nkomo, moving close to the edge of his chair and lowering his voice.

Born in 1917, Nokomo studied at missionary schools and worked as a bakery delivery boy and driver to send himself to secondary school in South Africa. He was already 24 when he returned to Rhodesia and became involved in politics.

"Imprisonment was a temporary setback," Nkomo, who was separated from his wife and four children, said, pausing, "and may have not been a setback. We knew we were on the move when the authorities began moving on us."

For his own models of leadership, Nkomo looked to Kwame Nkrumah, the first leader of independent Ghana, and Gandhi, the pacifist leader of India. "I worked with Nkrumah from 1958 until my detainment. He had an expression which some people didn't like. 'Seek ye the kingdom of political freedom and independence and all other things be given to you.'

"I interpreted the saying to mean, gain independence and then all the other means of implementation will grow out of that."

Frequently when he talks about the future for Zimbabwe, Nkomo refers to people, not making a distinction between black and white: "We are criticizing Smith for racism.We can't use racism in reverse."

In the next year, Nkomo feels the war between his guerrilla forces and the Rhodesian regulars will be over, but he refuses to predict what will happen next and sidesteps his vision of his future.

"I do have sufficient knowledge of the politics and the human problems but that does not mean I am more clever than anyone else. I work. You know when you are digging a well and you strike dirty water, you don't stop until you find clean waer.

"That hasn't happened yet."