The muted Zambian sun had just set over the middle-class neighborhood in Lusaka, where Eva Nyalugwe was in her backyard bent over a charcoal stove, carefully sifting corn meal into boiling water and showing her American guests how to make the national staple, nshima. Singer George Benson was playing on the family's stereo; Nyalugwe's women friends had changed from their accountant and cashier's clothes into long, traditional print dresses; her husband, the editor of The Times of Zambia, was tending bar and introducing his guests to a local chief.

Nyalugwe had met these 27 strangers only the night before, had instantly invited them over for a traditional meal, and had spent the day scouring the slimly stocked shelves of Lusaka looking for strawberries.

"Americans like strawberries," she said, shaking her small, bird-like face over the protests that she had done too much.

Quickly knitted friendships were one salvation of the three-week tour 26 other Americans and I took last summer under the auspices of the American Forum for International Study. On the fifth night of the journey through Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Congo and Senegal, we gathered in a room in the Monomatapa Hotel in Salisbury facing a blackboard. It listed various travel options to substitute for the five days the group had scheduled for Mozambique before our visas were rejected. This crisis turned into a long-distance mutiny, fueled by the possibility of being stranded and broke, and the unanswered questions about why the organizers had waited until we were in Zimbabwe to process the Mozambique visa applications.

So in a hotel room, with tempers flaring, the group debated fanciful and practical options. Because of tight airline schedules and the need to be reachable so the American Forum could send money for our alternative plan, we stayed in Zimbabwe. But there would be more dramatic meetings, more broken commitments, last-minute payments by the American Forum, a flurry of telexes, and a sour contingent.

Despite the snafus, the group of 13 journalists, five educators, and eight other professionals achieved the primary purpose of gaining some first-hand knowledge of health, political, cultural and industrial projects. We found those dimensions through formal settings, such as a visit to the United Nations Institute in Lusaka, as well as in casual conversation with a local politician-butcher riding his bicycle 190 miles outside Salisbury, in walking through a village and watching the kids play with truck tires, participating in a restaurant shouting match in Lusaka where the waiter didn't want women ordering, enjoying the touted serenity of a sunset cruise down the Zambezi River, and marveling at Victoria Falls from both the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides.

Many of our experiences were contrasting and contradictory:

The assurances of the white and black management in the Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Corp. mine that progress was being made in salaries and positions. And they were. But the image remained of the furnace attendants, their faces almost hidden with white cloth and their uniforms etched with the old company initials, RISCO, covered with grime. The sulphur smell barely permitted breathing. The furnace attendants earn $90 a month. When the group paused with cameras to take photos, one worker said sternly, "There's nothing here to smile about."

The powerful, energetic steps of the students in their yellow gym suits in the film on the successes of revolutionary socialism in Ethiopia that predicted the "masses are ready to build a strong economy through struggle" -- and the sad, watchful faces of the crippled men we saw in the winding streets of Addis Ababa.

The sweeping emotion of Heroes Day in Zimbabwe, when the remains of Herbert Chitepo, a leader of the liberation movement and a mentor of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, were brought home to be buried on a hilly plot outside Salisbury: Groups of school children dressed in black and white paint and feathers, women in the red, yellow, black and green colors of the new country, the military in crisp khaki uniforms, and choirs in white gowns, all prayed and sang. Mugabe spoke to the 15,000 people in English and Shona, and when the ceremony was ending, Teurai Ropa Nhongo, the lone female member of his cabinet and a former soldier who had fought on the front lines while pregnant, sang an old liberation song. The air tingled. But the blemish on the day was that Mugabe had invited all his countrymen to come to the funeral by train, and the trains, many unrepaired after 15 years of economic sanctions and lack of supplies, frequently don't work and many didn't that day.

How are blacks and whites getting along in Zimbabwe? Here's a clue: On a tour of Salisbury, the work load of the local guides was divided by a white woman taking the business, industrial and middle-class areas and a black man taking the black townships.

At the site of the Eternal Flame of Independence, set on a panoramic hill amid a fragrant garden of kaffir boom trees, poinsettias and aloe, is a circular wall with a series of plaques pointing out the landmarks of the entire country. One was missing. The white tour guide didn't have an explanation, but the black man quickly explained that a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the adventurer and financier who acquired the land from the indigenous tribes, starting 90 years of minority rule, had stood in a city square before it was torn down at independence in April l980. The white guide took the information unsmilingly, and a few minutes later referred to the Patriotic Front soldiers as "terrorists."

When the tour worked, which was most of the time, it worked well. For example, we had been promised meetings with newsmakers, cultural personalities and officials. In the first three days in Zimbabwe, the group met with Edison Zvobgo, a member of Mugabe's cabinet; Joseph Muli, a prominent sculptor; Wilf Mbanga, editor of the Zimbabwe News Agency, and Sen. Mark Partridge, a member of Ian Smith's National Front Party. We toured sites outside the city, including a manpower training center, and went to tobacco auctions.

In the last 14 years the American Forum has taken 2000 people back and forth to Africa. Melvin Drimmer, the president, has a good reputation as a historian and teacher, and several veterans of his tours felt he arranged the best of the non-traditional tours of Africa. In his pitch in Washington, Drimmer described the rigors of the program, such as morning-to-midnight scheduling, which did happen; the perks, such as five free dinners or luncheons on the three-week tours, which didn't happen; and repeatedly described the six tours he arranged this year as "a great adventure," which this one certainly was.

This was the first year a tour included the interests of journalists and the first time one went to southern Africa. The inclusion of Mozambique had attracted several people. At the last minute the original tour leader, Harold Rogers, a college professor in Chicago, stayed home -- because, he says now, of "the foul-ups on the tour I took over in July and poor arrangements for the southern Africa trip." Vincent Vera, a former University of the District of Columbia political science professor and a native of Zimbabwe, was substituted and on several occasions saved the day with his knowledge and contacts. For two days in Salisbury he tried to get the Mozambique visas, only to be told the applications should have been made in New York.

Drimmer, in a telephone interview, said that he had relied on the know-how of Ethiopian Air Lines. "We were told to pick up the visas in Salisbury. That was my understanding from the beginning . . . When we heard there was a conflict, we got a cable from the Mozambique Minister of Tourism who said the group should proceed directly to Maputo, where the visas would be issued at the airport. When I tried to call the group, they had gone on to Bulawayo," explained Drimmer. "I feel we got burned, I am not saying we were innocent. Maybe we shouldn't have taken their word."

During our extended visit in Zimbabwe, we returned to Salisbury only to discover that payment had not been received by our first hotel. The problems continued that night, as our second hotel, the Meikles, refused to let us register until we showed some credit guarantees. Credit cards were offered as the telexes went back and forth. The guarantee message from the Forum office in Cleveland came on time. But the one guaranteeing payment at the next overnight destination, the five-star Pamdozi Hotel in Lusaka, didn't arrive until we had sat for five hours in the lobby, then registered with our credit cards, but by then the local tour company had canceled our trip to the copper mining region. The money mix-ups, Drimmer says, were due to program changes, the bank holidays, and other things.

The drama continued right up to our landing in Dakar when, as some of our group were claiming luggage that had been riffled through, Cordell Gray, the leader of another American Forum group, said they had been delayed for several hours in Lome, Togo, because of the money foul-ups. Even now our group's tickets with the Mozambique portion are divided up between the Forum's Cleveland office and Air France's New York office, and the receipts for our substitute nights and meals scattered across the United States. The group, says Drimmer, has refunds coming on the unused portion of the ticket, the two nights in Bulawayo and some food costs.

"There are always some problems," he says, "the bottom line was that everyone got back healthy."

Despite the difficulties with our tour arrangements, the images that are fixed in our minds are simple lessons of concentration, privacy, kindness and cultural hilarity.

In the courtyards of the 44 majestic churches in Addis Ababa, no volume of screaming arguments, no amount of rain streaming through the jacaranda trees, stopped the thin men in dark clothing from standing close to the church door, kissing the rim, and praying. And the rain didn't stop the men from sewing in the crowded paths of the market, the rickety hum of their machines giving just one pulse of the market.

In the teaming market of Sandaga in Senegal, an old man ran after two American women, who were walking up and down the aisles, fingering tie-dyed cottons, wall hangings, and traders' amber. He looked distressed, dramatically pulling his left arm under his shoulder, demonstrating how to hold our pocketbooks. He pointed to a trio of young boys who were following us, identifying them in gestures as pickpockets.

It was this old man who taught the lesson that three weeks immersion in Africa doesn't erase Western notions. Spotting a pair of ballooning trousers in his tailor stall, we bargained and bargained until we reached a price. Then, hoping to show my gratitude, I offered him my last bottle of perfume to give to his wife. He accepted, with tears of laughter running down his cheek and an explosion of French. Another tailor came over to translate. The man was thanking me but telling me he had three wives.