She is a delicate woman with an incredibly wide smile and soft, disarming eyes. Everything about her seems feminine and urbane -- the perfectly shaped lavender nails, the simple but elegant print cotton dress, the smoothe, methodical voice.

Yet Bennetta Jules-Rosette, the daughter of former D.C. mayor Walter Washington, has lived in African villages in poverty that she describes as far worse than any American could imagine. It wasn't alwasy easy -- she admits she sometimes missed the blow dryer and the air conditioner -- but roughing it has made her one of America's foremost experts on African culture.

"The best way to get to know people is to really share in their everyday lives," says Jules-Rosette, 32, who has just written her fourth book, "Symbols of Change: Urban Transition in a Zambian Community." The book is the result of a four-year study of Marrapodi, a township of more than 13,000 residents in Zambia.

Jules-Rosette describes the disruptive urbanization she believes is typical of central and southern Africa. Marrapodi residents face a new life style, struggling with the broader social and economic ties, the different economic obligations, and the fragmentation of families.

"The transition to new forms of urban life is one of the most dramatic challenges to individuals in the non-Western world," says Jules-Rosette. "But for new urbanites, the promise of the city far outweighs its problems.The city becomes a symbol of opportunity and prosperity."

She occasionally lapses into sociologist's lingo, such phrases as "periurban " communities and "thaumaturgical doctrines." But she catches herself and smiles. "It's important to be simple and human when doing this type of work," she says. "I try to be."

Being "simple and human" helped her gain the respect and trust of the people she studied, she says. They spoke openly about their feelings, their religions and their customs. "After a while, they thought of me as one of them," says Jules-Rosette, who speaks two African languages. "And after a while, I started to feel like one of them." During one of her trips, she became a member of the Church of John Maranke, an independent religious group in Marrapodi. The churches of Marrapodi promise the urban dweller a brighter life through spiritual salvation, according to Jules-Rosette.

Religion and art are her main interests. She speaks about them with animated enthusiam, waving her hands, her words becoming more emphatic. "Religion is a crucial element in urban adjustment, especially among first-generation village migrants moving to the cities," she says. "Those in the church are committed to one another. No one starves in the new environment."

The religions forbid working for wages, so many of the followers sell their art to survive. "I had to expand my research to cover the art -- the grass-roots artists," she says. "I just couldn't resist."

Jules-Rosette apparently can not resist buying it, either. Her parents have devoted a room in their home to display the art she has collected. Sitting among the statues and ornate wall hangings, she says she can't wait to return. She leaves this week to complete her study of contemporary African art in Kenya.

"Something feels so right when I'm there," she says. "I feel like I'm doing what I was really meant to do."

Jules-Rosette chairs the sociology department at the University of California at San Diego. In what spare time she has, she tends a garden on her acre of land and takes jazzercise lessons. Two marriages have ended in divorce -- "When you're a career woman and always on the go, it's really hard" -- but she says she has a "wonderful relationship" with her daughter, Violaine, 14, from her first marriage to a French actor.

Walter Washington describes his daughter, who received a BA from Radcliffe and an MA and PhD from Harvard, as a dedicated woman. "I have to say I'm pleased that she has developed this interest in urbanization," he says. "It's something I've always been interested in."

He has not read all of the new book, however. "I've read several of the chapters," he adds quickly.

Jules-Rosette laughs. She doesn't expect the book to become a bestseller -- it is designed as a college text. "I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that this is an important work," she says. "Nothing to my knowledge has been done on urban change from the perspective of community groups, in particular religious groups."

She stops a moment, searching for the right words. "I want to show aspects of African culture in an accurate manner," she says. "People have such a romantic view of what it's like because of programs like "Roots."

A friend of the family remembers Jules-Rosette as a precocious, curious child. "To this day Bennetta has that fragile look, like a china doll," he says. "But don't let it fool you. She has the strength and determination of a bull."