Kenya is one of Africa's most stable and successful young nations, but last week it was shaken by an attempted coup d'etat. Richard Critchfield, author of "Villages" and other books, suggests why. "Africa is in trouble," he writes, precisely because of past successes that have transformed the daily lives of ordinary Africans, lives Critchfield has shared.

The drums mute, the faces blur: the African landscape and your days in it have been left behind. Yet just as real as when you walked the hills of Machakos, a mile high in the sky, is the sense of empty, limitless space. Karen Blixen put it just right in "Out of Africa": "Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feelings of having lived for a time in the air."

Africans, as they do for so many of us, aroused the admiration of Blixen, a Danish baroness. Her book had a classic portrayal of her faithful Kikuyu servant, Kamante: "His fortitude of soul in the face of pain was the fortitude of an old warrior."

Well, times change. In a 1981 book, 50 years later, we find Baroness Blixen, now a celebrated literary figure under her pseudonym Isak Dinesen, having a cosy chat with Truman Capote. "Ah, how fascinating she was," Capote recalls, "sitting by the fire in her beautiful house in a Danish seaside village, chain-smoking black cigarettes with silver tips, cooling her lively tongue with draughts of champagne, and luring one from this topic to that."

And Kamante? Oh, after Blixen sold her farm, left Africa in 1931 and never went back, he and her other Kikuyu squatters were kicked off the land. Today Isak Dinesen is dead but Kamante lives on, bent, white- haired and 78, with an ailing wife and a blind son in mud-hut poverty just outside Nairobi.

"What will happen to them if I should die?" he asked an interviewer. "They are both disabled. Who can look after the other?" One wondered, seeing rather more pain than fortitude in the old man's eyes, why, from her beautiful house on the sea, the great authoress failed to look after him.

The moral of this little tale, if there is one, could be that too romantic a view of Africans may be fundamentally insensitive; it blunts our ability to see their predicament as it really is. There is something psychologically fragile, perhaps a bit guilt-ridden, in the way we look at Africans even today. They still seem (in Joseph Conrad's words) "savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent." But behind the pride, the liveliness, there are great empty plains, wretched villages, malnourishment, diseases and fearful superstitions.

Africa, in fact, is in trouble. It is the last place on the planet where the population growth rate shows no signs of slowing. Instead, it is going up, from 2.5 percent a year in the 1960s to 2.9 percent last year.

Everywhere else, the output of food has continued to grow slightly faster than population. In Africa, the average annual growth in farm production dropped from 2.3 percent an average year in the 1960s to 1.3 percent a year in the 1970s.

A World Bank study shows that since 1960 the gross domestic product per person has grown by less than 1 percent in 19 African countries; in 15, it failed to grow at all in the 1970s. The bank has urged African governments to give agriculture higher priority.

What is going wrong in Africa?

In Kaani, a village in the semiarid highlands of Kenya's Machakos district, I looked for clues. The countryside, known as the Ukambani, the land of the Kamba tribe, was dry and hilly. There was the starved greenery, red soil and the hot dusty smell so common in black Africa, with its hint of smoke from the thatched huts. Clouds drifted across a sky that looked too big and blue to be true.

At 5,000 to 7,000 feet (we climbed up and down all day long), the air was bracing. Hills, range after range of them, sloped down to far- off plains, the burning desert of the Great Rift Valley. On an exceptionally clear day, after a rain, you could see -- so faint it seemed part of the clouds -- the unbelievable snowy square top of Kilimanjaro.

Corn was the main food crop. In Machakos, as all across the African continent, the 20th century has seen a steady migration from the plains into the highlands wherever it is cold enough or rainy enough to grow corn, which has replaced millet, sorghum, beef and wild game as Africa's new staple diet. Today, 86 percent of the 17 million Kenyans are crowded onto the highest and wettest 17.4 percent of the land.

In Kaani village, the burnt corn fields, edged with cactus, sisal or eucalyptus which need little water, crackled in the ceaseless wind. Half the shambas, or smallholdings, had less than two acres of cultivated land; only half of the marginal virgin soil in Machakos was yet tilled. Sparse acacia and flat-foliaged thorn trees gave little shade from the powerful sun; the equator was less than 100 miles north.

I grew burnt and dusty but the young Kenyan woman who served as my interpreter, Monica Mutuli, showed up each day immaculate in a freshly laundered dress. On the third day I discovered she only had two and rose every morning at 5 to bathe and wash one, using just a basin of water, which is scarce in Machakos.

Some years earlier I had stayed with Sudan's Nuba and Dinka tribes and learned that in Africa you are forever walking. Machakos was no different; our days were spent on high windy ridges, making our way along rocky red paths from homestead to homestead.

You soon recognized those headed by single women; many looked tumbledown, blighted, the huts with flaking walls and soggy thatch. Swarms of children would crowd about, some with shriveled limbs and protuberant bellies, their noses running with yellow slime, all scabs and sores, flies nestling in the corners of their eyes. Monica would stop, wipe the noses and shoo away the flies. She'd soon have the children singing happily. "If you're great and you know it, clap your hands." Even the dustiest, most ragged little child would speak English, the language of the primary schools.

Often we joined a group a women working in the fields, perhaps threshing a mass of beanstalks with poles. Beneath the gossip and laughter there was a rustling sound as the grains popped out of the beaten sheaves onto the hard earth. Or women might be winnowing beans; sometimes the wind stilled and they would wait, cursing, their wicker baskets poised to catch the breeze when it came back again.

I asked why they worked in groups. "We like to, it gives us strength," they would say. This ethic of mutual help is extremely strong in village Kenya, one of the happiest legacies of the tribal past. Jomo Kenyatta called it harambee, or pulling together. Villagers in Machakos found it natural to build their own schools, dams and roads.

But where were the men? We found few in the fields. "This is the problem we face here in Africa," Monica explained. "You see these women working hard in the fields? They suffer. Their husbands may be working in town, drinking beer, spending their wages, enjoying themselves."

Still it was a surprise to sometimes come upon a woman, struggling to plow with a team of oxen on a rocky slope, a burly husband walking beside, calling commands.

"In Kenya, actually, most farmers are women," said D. M. Thairu, one of Kenya's leading agronomists who ran a dry-land agricultural research center in Machakos. "A family has to have both food and cash. The wife grows the food for the family and the man earns money, either in cash crops or he goes to the city."

He said that women, half of them illiterate, produced 80 percent of the corn sold in Kenya and did all the rural marketing. On market days we saw them, armies of women streaming down the hillsides in their bright cotton dresses and headscarves, heavy loads on their heads, often babies on their backs, parasols against the sun. Agricultural officials had discovered that if they offered seed or fertilizer loans or technical training, about 70 percent of those who signed up were women. Dr. Thairu's problem, he said, was how to persuade these women to grow the new drought-resistant crops his center developed; men still made most decisions. "We can give the basic inputs -- plots, oxen, improved seeds -- and give these women training. But we have to put our theoretical knowledge into a package they -- and their husbands -- will accept."

Family planners told the same story. Kenyan women, who average 8.3 live children each (6.6 for all Africa), were ready to use contraceptives; the problem was the men.

Anthropologists agree that Neolithic woman, as the collector of roots, berries and wild grain, invented agriculture. This is natural because they would be the ones to discover that if you dropped seeds and put some dirt over them so the birds wouldn't eat them, something would grow and you wouldn't have to go so far. Man as the hunter and then the herder and domesticator of animals took over farming once draft animals were introduced in the fields. This happened about 6,000- 7,000 years ago in much of Asia and about 5,000 years ago in what is now Latin America.

Why is this only just happening in much of Africa now?

The oldest men in Kaani village supplied the answer. These aging Kamba tribesmen, those born from about 1895 to 1915, easily remembered the days when a single family may have owned 1,000 cattle and to possess just 30 or 40 was to be poor. And the days when elephants and other game were killed with traps, spears and poisoned arrows.

Listening to their tales of a vanished life, like the walks in the hills, was a pleasure. We'd sit around the village duka, a mud- brick tea house whose walls were painted in crude and gaudy Biblical scenes. In thunder clouds and lightning a black Moses received the Ten Commandments. Unlike the village children, most of the old men spoke only the Kamba dialect and Monica translated.

They liked to argue which was better, life in the old days or now. Mzee Kibiti, who had once been a teacher, claimed there were no poor people in his youth. "With so many cows we had plenty of milk and meat and the women grew corn, sweet potatoes, millet and sorghum." Mzee Sila, who looked like an old lion with his grizzled white beard, disagreed. "Nowadays is better," he said. "We suffered so much sickness and so many cattle died. Now there is somebody to cure you." I was reminded of Elspeth Huxley's "The Flame Trees of Thika"; once the European memsaabs arrived with their hygiene and Epsom salts, mortality dropped and the old ways were doomed. Herding, hunting and slash- and-burn cultivation rarely supported more than 150-250 persons per square mile.

There were tales of smallpox and rinderpest epidemics and great droughts and famines, as if Kamba history had held little else. At least half the Kamba people perished in 1899 and 1900 when the twice-yearly rains failed five successive times. Sila said his father told him many men chose starvation rather than kill their cows.

Sometimes the talk grew lively with yarns of raids to pillage the cattle of the Kikuyu and Masai. "How we would listen with longing to our fathers' tales of cattle wars," Sila recalled. "I used to despise myself that I was almost 30 and had not yet killed a Masai."

The old warrior fondly remembered hunting parties. "After 1936 it was forbidden to kill animals, but many secretly continued. There are still antelope, baboons and hyenas in the bush two miles from here. It's too dry to grow crops." He said baboons still plundered the bean and corn fields in Kaani village. "They screech and make a very big noise at you, but they cannot attack a man," Sila said. Once a baboon carried off a baby; the infant wasn't injured but died of exposure.

Sila had been born in 1906. "My mother was grown when the wasungu (white men) came. The Arabs were still catching people to sell. The British took care of our people, so they would not be sold. My grandfather exchanged ivory with British traders for cloth and beads. Those British were afraid of our arrows and spears."

When missionaries first came, the Kambas chased them away. "It was thought," one of the old men explained, "that they had come to take our land and make us slaves." When a mission school at last opened, the tribesmen sent only the weakest or laziest children, those not good at herding cattle. (Time proved them the lucky ones; Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu who became an eminent anthropologist long before he entered politics, was one.) Kibiti said, "The only reason I got educated was that I was always fighting with the other cattle boys. To punish me, my father sent me to school."

Sila, as a tall, muscular boy, was fated to stay with the herd. "Then, when I was still young," he said, "many cows were infected with disease. Almost all our cattle died. My father also died at that time. From then on we had nothing."

He had stayed illiterate all his life. Once he laughed, remembering his first encounter with mzungu. "I said to him, 'You white men know so much more than we, have you found the edge of the sky?' He said the sky has no edge and that it nowhere touches the earth. I did not believe him."

Oddly, in such a remote village, the old men knew the name of John Kennedy, a great mzungu who once sent cooking oil, corn and powdered milk in time of famine.

The generation gap was wide. "The young men want to be educated. They want to wear nice clothes and be employed by the government," they said. "They don't want to dirty their hands in the earth."

Grass grew on the Kamba warpaths; the battle cries had long been stilled. Gone were the hunting parties and the great herds of cattle. The swords had literally become plowshares; village women used pangas to clear brush from the fields. It was when you went to a Kenyan game park and, in a primal landscape, came upon a pride of lions, a lone rhinocerous, or a family of giraffes, tall as dinosaurs and nibbling on the treetops, that you fully sensed what these old men had lost.

It had happened very fast. James Zachariah Nzoka, the village headmaster and less than half Sila's age, drove a Volkswagen, had built his own modern four-room bungalow, raised Dr. Thairu's latest hybrid corn, read his pupils Shaw's "Androcles and the Lion" and one day took 40 of them on a 12- kilometer hike into town to see a film of Thomas Mann's "Joseph and His Brothers."

Individual people, caught up in rapid change, tend to perceive it in very personal terms; we do the same thing. Monica, a few years earlier, had been a modern Kenyan woman, a mother of five children and the wife of a salesman with a foreign company in Nairobi. He was killed in a car crash. Under Kamba tribal law, this meant her children now belonged to her brother-in-law (in the old days, she would have too). Monica banked her husband's insurance money for her children's education, then learned the brother-in-law withdrew it to buy land; the bank made no fuss. It was too much for her; Monica spent three months in Nairobi's mental hospital, where, I was told, "she ran screaming up and down the halls, tearing off her clothes."

Approaching Nairobi from the southeast, across the grasslands and thorn-trees of the Kabiti Plain, you could still glimpse giraffes, zebras and the occasional ostrich. About 20 miles out, the city came faintly into view, a blue marage of skyscrapers rising from a haze of traffic fumes and factory smoke. Kenya has the world's highest annual population growth rate -- 3.9 percent -- and yet is still the prime symbol in Africa of what Western investment can do. It is Africa's banking, business and tourist center (400,000 a year) and, as the American ambassador told a businessmen's lunch at the Hilton, "Gentlemen, there's money to be made."

African culture is all but swamped by Westernization. Except for the odd Masai, naked under his blanket, everybody wears modern clothing, much of it from second- hand markets. New glass-and-concrete towers, gracious colonial architecture and parks ablaze with bougainvillea, jacaranda and flame trees tend to obscure the squatters camps that spread like fungus in the outskirts. Here half of Nairobi's one million people live.

In one suce our h shantytown, Kabiro, a kindly- faced middle-aged social worker, Mama Wahr, told us people kept coming in from the villages and putting up shacks. There was nothing to be done; "You can't throw away people like so much garbage."

Only 29 percent of Kabiro's men had regular jobs; wife beating, family desertion and escape into alcoholism or dope were common. The men who did work mostly had jobs as askaris, or house guards; fear of the poor had made protection the main emplyment of the poor. Wages were seldom more than $45.60 a month, the legal minimum.

A monthly $4 rent obtained a hut of corrugated iron sheeting with a single 10-by-10 foot, windowless, mud-floored room. Inside most there was little but a sleeping mat or iron bed, a blanket or two, a charcoal cookstove and a few cooking pots, bowls, cups and spoons. Women alone with children staved off starvation by buying vegetables from a truck and hawking them at the market. Mama Wahu said she had seen people eating grass, rummaging through garbage pits or sending their children out to steal.

Violence was commonplace. Mama Wahu blamed much of it on chang'aa, the cheapest, illicitly brewed liquor. "The men have nothing to do," she said, "so they beat up their wives or wander off and don't know where they are. Mothers try to hide what money they make to buy food for the children, but a man won't let it go, he just won't let it go and he'll go off and get drunk."

There were six public latrines for 2,000 people; one of them, Mama Wahu claimed, was used at least 1,500 times a day. Most tragic were the bodies of unwanted babies sometimes thrown in these latrines. "The grandmothers do it," Mama Wahu said. "Where else can they get rid of it without being seen?" Every few weeks the body of a dead man was found in Kabiro's alleys, stabbed and robbed while staggering around at night drunk or doped. Some of the bodies had been gnawed upon by hungry dogs.

In this hellish place, it was a surprise to come upon a primary school. The teacher wrote on the blackboard, "Cows and horses walk on four legs. Little children walk on two legs." She asked the children to name English words that begin with the letter "C." There were cries of "cat," "cup," "cassava," "car," "cabbage," "carrot."

Nairobi buzzed with horror stories of gangs, coming out of slums like Kabiro and armed like Mau Mau with pangas, waylaying pedestrians at night or stealing cars, often, in a weird twist, after locking the battered occupants in the trunk. Or invading dinner parties and cutting everybody up.

The 1970s proved, at least in Asia, that human fertility falls if productivity rises. Africa is too rural (86 percent in Kenya) and too lacking in resources to find the answer in industry. Instead it must be found in farming, no longer just a matter of slashing and burning bush and planting with a digging stick. With hybrid corn and scientific methods, agriculture has become the key to Africa's whole development, to stabilizing population and to boosting family income.

Back in Machakos, where you could still walk the country roads at night in safety, the male failure to find a new role in settled farming seemed fundamental. This was changing, but very slowly. One 40-year-old man in Kaani village, Mutiso Mangi, had taken over farming from his wife in 1977 after he bought a team of oxen. This enabled him to plow and cultivate more land, seven acres. He had prospered and built a new brick house. "If you go to Nairobi there's a lot of noise and nonsense," he said.

Oddly, Third World governments work better in the countryside than they do in cities. Walking the hills of Machakos, we sometimes met young engineers or agricultural technicians. They were building dams, offering credit for new seeds or demonstrating how to plow or irrigate. Nzoka, the Kaani headmaster, said, "There is still a belief that farming is for women or for those who don't go to school. We have to change that." The confidence of the young Kenyans we metr suggested they will.

In the meantime, Africa's women farmers are blazing the trail. Monica took me to meetings where a gathering of villagers, usually about 75 percent of them women, drew up month-by-month plans to build new terraces, apply fertilizer, dig irrigation canals, plant new fast-maturing cash crops and build everything from latrines to chicken coops. Genetic engineering back at Dr. Thairu's research station was rapidly opening up new possibilities for local farming -- in adaptation of existing crops to disease and the semi-arid climate of Machakos and in entirely new crops. Centuries of technological advance were being thrown at these village women all at once.

Aside from farming, these women had to fetch firewood and water, keep house, cook and take care of their children and, with life expectancies of 53, would spend much of their lives in a continuing cycle of pregnancy, birth and child rearing. Amazingly, they were eager for practical knowledge in scientific agriculture too.

Once I joked to Monica that it was the man's role to be the wise maker of such decisions. She admitted a few of the old headmen were jealous of their authority, but such voices were dying out.

Perhaps because she herself had been so deeply caught between the old and new, Monica had uncommon empathy with her fellow Kamba women. I guess Blixen did have it right: fortitude. Monica had that peculiar patient endurance that more than anything we saw or heard in our days together in Machakos left me deeply impressed by the African woman; I saw them through her eyes. It is such women that are bringing Africa into the 20th century.

The hunter-warrior is no more. The settled farmer is not yet. Monica understood, far better than I ever could, how it would take time.