There were just 13 of them, mostly wrinkled, barechested, toothless old women, who had come to vote in a mud-and-stick abandoned schoolhouse here in an African tribal trust land on the very edge of the Mozambican border, where guerrillas are now pretty much in control.

"Tell me, sir," said one English-speaking youth looking and acting very worried, "do you think I will still be okay with the leaders outside now that I voted?"

"I just want to stay alive until God comes to take me away," said one of the old woman when asked what she thought of the voting.

Living in the shadow of fear of retaliation from the Mozambic-based nationalist guerrillas, a few tribesmen from the Tamandayi Tribal Trust land, an African reserve, had come to one of the mobile polls the government had made available to them, reportedly at their request.

Both to prove that observers were free to go anywhere they wanted and that there was grass-roots interest in the elections, the government took seven correspondents and a Canadian observer deep into guerrilla country yesterday, near the Mozambican border.

It was a trip full of anxiety, as four armored vehicles carrying the group, guarded by about 30 heavily armed soldiers, lumbered their way along a little-used dirt road across the mountains through ambush country to Mapungwana School.

"We don't bother to come here much any more," said one soldier with a grenade launcher held ready. "When we do, we usually come by foot and don't stay for long."

According to other military sources, Tamandayi is one of four tribal trust lands in Rhodesia that come the closest to being what the guerrillas call "liberated areas" under their control.

"We have lost a fair degree of contact with the people," remarked Chipinga District Commissioner Dirk du Plooy. "Frankly, I had totally written the place off."

Du Plooy said he decided to send a mobile polling station to the Mpungwana school because a tribal delegation had arrived at the closest booth seven miles away in Ratelshoek and asked that one be sent. By the time the mobile station was set up, however, most of those wishing to vote had hiked over the mountain to Ratelshoek.

The scene was a strange one-one observer, seven Western reporters and cameramen, 18 voters and about 40 soldiers, including those sent to guard the station. A mortar was set up outside and wary white troops eyed the mountains apprehensively.

"What we've got left is the sick, the lame, the blind and those too old to walk to Ratelshoek," said the presiding white election officer who estimated that perhaps 80 or 90 blacks would finally vote from the tribal trust land - a bit more than 10 percent of the possible total potential voters.