PRESIDENT JOMO KENYATTA of Kenya began life some 80-plus years ago as a herdsman's son. At his death this week, he was widely acknowledged as one of the prime movers for self-determination and decolonization in Africa.

In the 1920s, reacting to the stifling inequities of colonial rule, Mr. Kenyatta joined and quickly became prominent in a Western-style political movement. His political skill, oratory and personality propelled him into the front ranks of black African leaders. Following a 17-year self-imposed exile, he returned to Kenya after World War II to lead the indigenous independence movement. From imprisonment by the British he proceeded, after independence, first to the office of prime minister and finally to the presidency. Widely feared as a fierce nationalist in the years of insurgency, he was revered by the populace as the unchallenged leader of an independent Kenya. He ruled as a patriarch rules a family; with justification, it was said, "Kenyatta is Kenya, Kenya is Kenyatta."

Jomo Kenyatta's contributions to the political peace and economic well-being that Kenya now enjoys are undeniable. During those first crucial years, he promoted the establishment of a relatively free press and judiciary. He made it clear that whites, who as settlers and businessmen had skills to teach black Kenyans, were welcome to stay. He kept in check divisive ethnic strains among Kenya's 42 tribes. He unabashedly sought aid and investments from Western governments and businesses. And finally, he encouraged a free-wheeling capitalist ethic among black Kenyans that has led to the growth of a sizable upper and middle class.

He was, in short, a moderate revolutionist - moderate toward his adversaries, but also moderate in the fulfillment of the revolution.

Increasingly, during the 1970s, critics within and outside the country have charged that Mr. Kenyatta was hampering Kenya's "unfinished revolution" - and indeed he was. Almost every part of Kenyan society has fallen under the dominance of members of the Kikuyu tribe, his own. There is parliamentary rule - but by only one party. His government has grown increasingly intolerant of differing political views. Land and wealth have become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Kenyatta family and other favored persons. Unemployment has risen drastically in urban areas. Most important, Mr. Kenyatta's refusal to publicly designate a successor has left his country in great uncertainty about who will now take over and even about what form a new government will ultimately take.

So it is too early to pass final judgment on the life and work of Jomo Kenyatta. But it is not too early to mark him as one of the great driving forces for independence - and some measure of orderly self-government - in Africa in this century.