Several thousand peasants stretched out behind us, gaily singing songs and clapping their hands rhythmically while keeping up with the guerrillas' brisk pace down the dusty red-dirt road.

Young children ran through the bushes bordering the road laughing and giggling. The rains had suddenly stopped in the first two weeks of February, and a long, reddish dust cloud hung in the still air behind us, twisting left and right as it followed our meandering path.

On the crest of a slight rise of green pasture ahead of us sat the village. Its squat, rectangular white-washed mud huts with corrugated-iron roofs were brightly visible through the maze of towering eucalyptus trees.

A narrow rutted path branched off from the right side of the road and ran up into the village. Both sides of the path were lined with villagers who broke out into song and drumming when we came into sight around a bend in the road.

This was the beginning of one of the large and numerous rallies held by the civilian supporters of UNITA which is fighting against the Communist-oriented government of this country.

Here in mid February, the war seemed far away.

In the small depression where the path began stood men and boys dressed in drab lattered trousers and dark jackets. Some of the men pulled on long iron-step [WORD ILLEGIBLE] which glittered like tiny reflectors in the right sunlight. The village men, who tradtionally greet visitors first, stood apart from the women.

Along the path above the men were the women and girls wearing shiny, colored head scarves, dresses and blouses. Their shrill voices overrace the deep male beritones. Unlike the stole men, the women danced and jugged to the time of the music, creating a rainbow collage of moving color.

Carvalho Ephrai stepped out from the crowd of men as we turned onto the path. Guerrilla Maj. Arao Chingufo and Ephrai hugged each other warmly in a traditional greeting. The music and singing suddenly stopped. Maj. Chingufo turned and introduced [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to Ephrai, a traditional soga or chief and contemporary political leader of this village and two others like it.

Ephrai and Chingufo turned and walked up the path together. The drumming and the singing resumed. We followed the two men. The women brushed our shoulders with leafy branches, another traditional greeting.

Walking side-by-side through the throng, were customary soba Ephrai and 20th century guerrilla Chingufo - contrasts that had blended.

The chief, 50, his full head of white hair highlighting his regal bearing, would stiffly acknowledge the crowd's cheers and shouted comments with a sight bow of the head.

An illiterate peasant, his head was filled with the oral lore of the Ovimbundu covering history, legends, spirits, witchcraft, property rights and criminal law. He was the final mediator in any dispute.

The guerrilla, 28, exuberant and informal, would plunge into the excited crowd to shake hands with a friend long missed, banter with a pretty girl and continually adjust the 10-pound captured Kalashnikov assault rifle dangling from his left shoulder. A high-school graduate in a land where more than 90 per cent of the population is illiterate, his head was filled with thoughts of nationalism, anticommunism, war an the political necessity of keeping the peasants' support. He was the contemporary warrior.

We walked to a large grove of leafy trees in the village center, where the slade offered a cooling relief from the midday heat. The crowd, which had swelled to about 5,000 persons, sorted itself into different groups by sex and age - male elders, young married men, boys, women and girls.

Ephrai, whose duties include being president of the UNITA peasant assembly in his three villages, stepped to the center of the encircling crowd and raised his right arm for silence.

A young guerrilla captain began to pace around the inner edges of the crowd. He began to hum a traditional chant in a low voice that gradually built up to a falsetto. He reviewed the history of the Ovimbundu. The men in the crowd punctuated his pauses with a deep humming bass and the women with a high trilling.

Soba Ephrai looked on approvingly, dapping his moist eyes occasionally with a soiled handkerchef. Masked and costumed traditional dancers jumped into the center of the circle and danced to the drummers beat. These dancers were banned by the Portguese authorities.

The chant was followed by four hours of speeches, songs and more chants. Guerrilla officers and civilian leaders, male and female, made speeches covering the 400-year history of Portugese rule, its end in 1974, the beginning of the civil war in 1975 and the present [WORD ILLEGIBLE] .

"We talk a lot because that is our way," said Soba Ephrai during a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] from father to son to grandson. It has always been this way with the Ovimbundu."

The overwhelming majority of African societies had no written language until they were colonized. The UNITA guerrillas understand the importance of oral tradition. They use it and follow tribal customs while proselytizing among the many ethnic groups of Angola, of which the Ovimbundu are the largest - almost 2 million people.

Much of the UNITA guerrillas' success in garnering the support of a large number of peasants of southern Angola, where half of the country's more than 5 million population lives, grew out of their ability to meld strong tribal traditions with their modern-day struggle. This approach evolved from trial and error during the eight years, from 1966 to 1974, they spent in the bush of southeastern Angola fighting the Portuguese.

"True, tribalism is divisionism," said UNITA guerrilla leader Jonas Malheiro Savimbi, who like Soba Ephrai is OVimbundee, "but tribal structure is the lifeblood of Africa. You can draw from this structure the will and support of the people."

Savimbi told me when he is trying to convert a new tribe to his cause he will send in tribesmen who are already in UNITA.

"These men already know their customs, how they look at the world outside their tribe, how to approach the chiefs and elders" who wield tremendous influence in traditional tribal societies, he said.

"When you don't follow this procedure you make costly mistakes," continued Savimbi, following with an anecdote to buttress his point.

In the 1950s, the Portuguese colonial administrators ordered the proud cattle-raising Cuanhama people, who live in the area of southern Angola bordering on Namibia, to cut their cattles' weighty horns to improve meat production. "What the Portuguese did not understand." Savimbi said, "is that the Cuanhama measure each cow's worth by the length of its horns."

The Cuanhama thought the Portuguese wanted to "steal the cattle's worth by cutting the horns. They rebelled. Many people were killed on both sides and the Portuguese didn't find out until afterward why they had rebelled," Savimbi said. "We don't make those kinds of mistakes."

After winning a tribe over. Savimbi said, "Then we start the long process of nationalization. It requires a lot of patience and hours, days, weeks, months of endless discussions and meetings. You are trying to get a man to switch from thinking of himself as a Cuanhama to thinking of himself first as an Angolan. It's very complicated."

Savimbi personally teaches a month-long course to his guerrillas in political organization and Angolan culture. Graduates of the course, called political commissars, are given a diploma and sent out from military camps to peasant villages.

George Pinto Chikoti, 22, took the course in February, but did not graduate. "I did well, but (Savimbi) said I was too young. Not everyone who takes the course passes and I'll probably take it again," he said.

"The main things Savimbi taught us were Angolan culture, social life and how to create a government of the majority black peasants to rule the country," Chikoti said. "He had to teach culture because it is very common for us not to know our culture," added Chikoti, who grew up for 14 years as a refugee in neighboring Zambia.

When he goes to an Ovimbundu village, Chikoti said, he learned "I cannot contact the chief directly. I speak to an elder man first who will either contact the soba himself or send a messenger. Then I wait to be called," he said. "This is the traditional method of showing respect."

"Most of the peasants do not like whites and do not understand the Cubans' Spanish," said Chikoti of the 15,000-odd Cuban army forces supporting the Angolan government. "We use this in our discussion also."

There are differing levels of understanding, said Chikoti. "The peasants who were with UNITA during the colonial war have a basis in nationalism, but the majority, the ones who came in after it ended, are still tribalists."

"I joined UNITA after 1974," the year of independence, said soba Ephrai "because Savimbi has been here during the suffering and understands what we need." The suffering" is the phrase Angolan peasants use to describe the 13 years of colonial warfare that preceded independence.

During the height of the civil war that followed Angola's hastily granted independence, the Cubans came to Ephrai's village in search of UNITA guerrillas.

"It was in February" 1976, said Ephrai. "They told us they wanted to catch Savimbi and 'for now, we don't want anything to do with you,'" Ephrai said. "They did nothing.

"We are not happy seeing a white man staying" Ephrai said. "We remembered the Portuguese when we saw (the Cubans).

"Yes, I noticed some black Cubans, the mesticos," he added. "But they were understanding (the language of the white Cubans), so they are one people."

Emilio Ndombe Ciguaki is one of three paramount chiefs of the Ovimbundu, the tribe's highest-ranking traditional political position. He was elected in 1968. I was able to see the almost fearful reverence in which Ciguaki is held by UNITA guerrillas and civilians alike.

Everyone stands a long distance away from him, until he, with a slight rod, indicates that they may approach within speaking distance.I was able to interview him for only a few minutes as the Ovimbundu interpreter Gilbert Chikoti, a UNITA guerrilla, became very nervous translating my questions. "You can't ask him so many questions," Chikoti snapped. "Not of him It's disrespectful" he said.

"I support UNITA because Savimbi is the only man who can understand the Ovimbundu's suffering" under colonial rule, paramount chief Ciguaki said. Angolan President Agostinho Neto "is Angolan, but he stayed a long time in Europe and married a white woman and doesn't care or know about the Ovimbundu's life. He's a Kimbundu," the chief said.

Angola's Marxist president, Neto, had branded the UNITA guerrillas "racists" and "tribalists," has created a multircial government that includes as cabinet-level civil administrators a large number of Portuguese whites and Angolan mulattos. Both groups are highly educated minorities within the country.

"We are neither 'racists' nor 'tribalists,'" UNITA leader Savimbi responded. "We are African nationalists. We want the majority to rule this country.

"Neto has appointed (Portuguese) Antonio Jacinto as the minister of education," Savimbi suputtered angrily. "What is the contribution of this man to African culture? This is crime. We must cut the Portuguese culture out of Angola and return to our culture as blacks. There must be no compromise on this question in education."

Guerrilla Gina Chinosole, 20, is a politicial commissar who also makes much of Agostinho Neto's personal life when speaking at peasant rallies. An even 6 feet tall, her height is a rarity among both sexes in Angola.

When speaking she uses an African walking stick, which by custom is carried only by men in Angola. A German Walther handgun hangs from a military web belt around her narrow waist.

While making a point, she walks right up to the Angolan men in her audience and looks directly down into their eyes. "I use everything I can to get across my point," Chinosole said after one rally. "The gun, the walking stick, are all props. The men aren't offended because they know I'm a guerilla. I'm supposed to be tough, so I act tough."

"Agostinho Neto is married to a Portuguese woman and wants to help Portuguese people more than black people," is how she started a speech the day before Christmas in western Bie Province.

"Neto is rich, and all rich people don't know how poor people are suffering," Chinosole continued. "If Neto had good people in his government all of your children standing here would be studying and have good clothes. You are not, because he has Portuguese in his government. We are not near to independence."

She also addressed the divided support the UNITA guerrillas received from the peasants. "Recently, at Chingote, one informer caused to death of many people because he told the government soldiers UNITA held a rally there," she said.

"At this village, I know there are informers and their work results in soldiers coming here and killing the people, whether they are informers or not."

Then she related an Angolan fable about a rabbit who wanted to marry a bear's daughter. The bear told the rabbit that the only man his daughter would be allowed to marry was one who could build a house in one day. The rabbit then called all of his look-alike relatives - careful to let the bear see only one at a time - who rapidly helped the suitor build the house. The bear gave his daughter to the rabbit.

At the end of the proverb, the 400 civilians applauded. "When we work together," Chinosole continued, "things that seem impossible can be possible. We must remember this and apply it concretely."

Fables, she said later, are the easiest tools to get the peasants attention. "From childhood on up," she said, "everything is taught traditionally in stories. Each animal has a characteristic. The rabbit is always wise and the bear slow-witted. If you don't know the fables, you can't reach the peasants."

Soba Chillivela N'Dala, who has been a UNITA sympathizer since 1970 when he began living in the bush with the guerrillas, is head of six villages where 312 people live. N'Dala says he is first an Angolan, then of the Ganguella tribe and, finally, a Baptist. "In that order," he said.

Savimbi teaches us that we are Angolans," N'Dala said, "from Cabinda to Cunene." Cabinda is the oil-rich Angolan enclave north of the country and the Cunene River runs along the southern Angolan border with Namibia. "I learned that from him and I believe it."

N'Dala said he has no qualms about supporting UNITA through the current civil war with the Popular Movement government. "I lived through the war against the Kaputo and I will live through this one," he said. "Kaputo" is a derogatory name for the Portuguese.

But he does not have universal agreement from the people in his villages. "Some of them are tired of the war and some have left to live in the towns with the government," he said. "They left when they were given blankets, salt and sugar by the soldiers.

"I understand," N'Dala said. "The life we live in the orest is very difficult. We have no medicine for the sick children. Our wives who are pregnant receive no medical treatment. We cannot get new clothes.

"But most of us believe there is only one way to follow, only one movement for the liberation of Angola," he said fervently," and that is UNITA. It is the only movement I know. We believe God and Savimbi will give us independence."