To be a teacher you must be honest, have dignity and moral standards," said a forlorn instructor whose tale of inefficiency and corruption reflects the plight of many in Zaire. "How can you be dignified when you are hungry?" he asked plaintively.

Like thousands of teachers in this vast central African country, the man is not regularly paid by the government. Even when the back wages arrive, the paychecks often do not equal the teachers' paltry salaries because of "skimming" by the bureaucracy. As a result, he noted with disapproval, some instructors demand food, money or sexual favors from their impoverished students before allowing them to attend classes or pass exams.

"The problem is the system--not capitalism or socialism--the problem is the system of morality," said the teacher of French in a state secondary school, who insisted on remaining anonymous.

There is no sign that things will get better soon. In fact, a number of Western diplomats and other analysts are convinced that President Mobuto Sese Seko encourages inefficiency and graft as a means of staying in power. He wants to keep things chaotic in the Army and the government so that nobody would be able to organize a coup or risk trying to topple him, the sources suggest. The elite is co-opted by the gains to be had on the thriving black market, they add.

Zaire, seen by the Reagan administration as a bulwark against Soviet advances in Africa, is about to get a fresh influx of U.S. assistance, and U.S. officials acknowledge that the aid must be monitored carefully to prevent theft.

Norman Sweet, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Zaire, noted that the United States has already begun supplying food assistance here in the form of wheat instead of rice because wheat goes through a more controlled distribution process, making it easier to check on losses.

"I'm looking for at least a doubling of development assistance to over $20 million" in the 1983 fiscal year, Sweet said. "We must convince the government" that if U.S. assistance is to increase, "it is important to them not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg."

"Perhaps Zaire is unfairly singled out" for corruption, and other countries are as bad or worse, he said, but added: "There is no evidence that the government of Zaire has improved the way it does its business."

The teacher explained how seriously corruption hurts the entire educational system. Because they're unpaid, many of Zaire's teachers carry out rolling strikes for several days or weeks at a time, causing further chaos for schools already plagued by lack of facilities and supplies, low morale and poor test results.

"About 50 percent of the students fail their secondary school exams" which are still European-oriented and graded in Belgium, the teacher said. "The girls who fail work in the fields or become prostitutes. The boys go into the Army or sell cigarettes on the streets."

When interviewed recently, the teacher said his pay was six weeks overdue even though he understood the school had received it from Kinshasa, the capital 325 miles to the west, two weeks before. Previously he had gone 2 1/2 months without pay and he cited cases of some teachers who are owed more than a year's salary.

"When you are owed so much back pay, you have to keep teaching just to insure you'll eventually get some of it," a foreigner with long experience in Zaire said. "If you quit, you'll never get any of what is owed."

When asked why it is so difficult to be paid, the teacher described a maddening bureaucratic system with many opportunities for corruption.

The funds for salaries, he said, go from the Bank of Kinshasa to the governor of the district, then to the superintendent of the district school system, then to the school principal and finally to the teacher. At all levels the money can be siphoned off.

Salaries are also small to begin with. The teacher is supposed to earn 500 zaires a month, slightly more than $90 at the official rate of exchange but about half that much in terms of the goods it can buy. His salary is in the top bracket because the teacher has a five-year university degree. His family of six, including four children from one to six years old, must live on his earnings and the produce of a vegetable garden run by his wife.

The rent for their house, which has no electricity, water or doors that lock, is one-fifth of the monthly salary he's supposed to get regularly. A month's supply of manioc--a root that is the staple of the diet--costs a quarter of his pay.

How do people manage to survive under such conditions, the teacher, wearing a threadbare suit, was asked.

"It is impossible to have two meals a day," he said. "We eat only once a day."

When he is paid, the family tries to buy large supplies of necessities, such as palm oil, and then sell small amounts to others for a profit. When things are bad, they rely on the extended family. His brother teaches in the Roman Catholic school system, which tends to be better at providing pay.

Other teachers victimize their students. The French instructor said one 15-year-old girl--told by her father to do what she could to earn her school fees--slept with her teacher, became pregnant, and almost died after undergoing a traditional abortion that involved swallowing poisonous plants. As payment for her favors, she had received a red pen, a notebook and less than $2 cash. The case eventually went to court.

The students are already pressed for money because they must pay for all their supplies. A 12-page school notebook costs 40 cents, a fortune for families that are lucky if they earn 100 times as much in a month.

In describing all these troubles, the teacher never mentioned President Mobutu, the American-supported president who has been in power for 16 years, by name, but said:

"We need to change the government, but everybody is afraid. When 'the leader' speaks, many people turn off the radio. The people feel that they have been abandoned."

AID director Sweet said part of the problem is that the country had to "develop from nothing" because the Belgian colonial regime trained few Africans and left them with no tradition of public service. As a result, Zairians often have reason to fear the police and security forces that are supposed to protect them.

As this correspondent was leaving Zaire, a policeman at Kinshasa airport discovered that I still had 110 zaires (about $20). He simply grabbed the money from my hand. A request for a receipt brought an incredulous stare.