In the footsteps of his father, his grandfather and generations before them, Mohammed Shahatah follows the family buffalo round and round a primitive pump spilling water into fields of alfalfa and wheat.

The gray beast plodding tranquilly in a circle to power the water wheel and 11-year-old Mohammed poking and clucking from behind to keep it moving form a scene from Egyptian agriculture that has changed little since the earliest days of history here at the top of the Nile Delta. Despite vast modernization efforts that include a billion dollars a year in U.S. economic aid, there is little to suggest to the peasants of Al Deir that their lives are changing much even now.

"Nothing has come to us yet," said Abdul Khadi Shahata, Mohammed's father and the owner of just under an acre of delta farmland. "We still have to come out here at midnight with the buffalo to get the water moving.

Slightly over half of Egypt's 41 million inhabitants live in rural areas such as Al Deir. All but a handfull live in the Nile Valley that runs nearly the length of Egypt, from Sudan and the Aswan high dam in the south to the Mediterranean in the north.

For the vast majority of them, the dramatic shift in Egypt's orientation from the Soviet Union to the United States and Washington's commitment to rebuild the Egyptian economy amount to an unknown crop, planted but not yet out of the ground.

Abdul Khadi Shahatah, for instance, still throws bread in his well, as the family has since his grandfather dug it, to feed a yard-long fish he says lives in the water, eating insects and algae and keeping it pure. He still walks his land barefoot and builds little walls of soil to channel water from field to field as it flows out of the buffalo-powered wheel into irrigation ditches.

In dry summer weather, the water level declines in the afternoon, however, and only in the middle of the night does it rise back to a level where the wheel can scoop it from the well. So Abdul Khadi comes back out in the fields and sends the buffalo in its circles "when other people are at home asleep."

Abdul Khadi works less than a quarter of the four feddans -- 4.15 acres -- that Egyptian agriculture experts say are necessary to maintain a Nile Valley household adequately. By his own testimony, however, he, his wife, their son Mohammed and their daughter Ibtisam are eating their fill.

By the end of spring, Abdul Khadi and his neighbors will harvest their wheat and alfalfa and replant their fields with tomatoes and strawberries. When the summer sun ripens the fruit, the farmers can borrow a truck in Al Deir and get the cash crop to market in Cairo, a one-hour drive south of here.

With this money, Abdul Khadi says he can give his wife what she needs to run their mud-brick house and still invest in a lamb or a new calf to slaughter and eat for one of the Moslem feasts that mark the seasons in Al Deir. Or he can pay for a ride to nearby Toukh in one of the vintage taxis -- including a 1934 Chevrolet and a 1936 Plymouth -- that run shuttle services.

But since electricity came to Al Deir eight years ago, television also has entered the lives of its inhabitants. When the work is over in the fields, Abdul Khadi walks half a mile to "professor" Faransi's cafe to drink black tea and watch the programs from Cairo.

Some private homes in Al Deir also are getting television now. Faransi has a pair of foreign customers, but he still gets a crowd at night.