A numbing dread ran through both men when the first sketchy radio news reports reached here of the Kenyan Air Force's bloody and eventually crushed Aug. 1 coup attempt in distant Nairobi.

Their first thoughts were of the death, turbulence and destruction that has wracked neighboring Uganda from the time in 1971 when Idi Amin came to power in an army coup and has continued to a certain extent up to today, more than three years after the brutal dictator's downfall.

In scenes undoubtedly duplicated throughout rural Kenya that day, Julius Chelulei and Cleophas arap Moro, with small groups of their neighbors, remained close by their radios. All of them knew that the outcome of events in the capital would determine the future course of their lives.

No matter how weak Kenya's economy was becoming, none of these conservative small farmers wanted to see arbitrary gun-rule, the tattered results of which are evident in many African countries, nor a switch to the rigid dogma of socialized farming that has produced little, in black Africa at least, beyond declining standards of living.

At 5:47 p.m. that evening, President Daniel arap Moi came on the Voice of Kenya radio to announce that the rebel forces had been defeated and his government was back in control. The people of Kilibwoni celebrated.

Before Moi's broadcast "I had been very afraid," Chelulei recalled. "If the military had taken over we would have been always insecure, led by the gun, unable to move freely. Our farm production would have fallen, because a military government would not have responded to us like a civilian government.".

"Until I heard Moi's voice, I was numb," Cleophas remembered. "I saw everything that I had worked for, to build up on my farm, destroyed overnight."

Three months after Kenya's Army crushed the coup by the now disbanded Air Force's junior officers and privates, life around Kilibwoni has returned to the normal, mundane rhythms of picking tea leaves from waist-high bushes, milking the dairy herds and carefully watching for the day the acres of corn have fully ripened, signaling the start of a year-end harvest that promises to be a national bumper crop this year.

I had once lived in Kilibwoni, in 1969 and 1970, as a volunteer Peace Corps high school teacher and returned here recently to see what progress had been made in the intervening years and to hear from friends how they were affected by the aborted coup.

I found a strong confidence among the farmers in their government's ability to put the events of August behind it. Like American farmers, they were more concerned about government price supports for their farm produce than about any signs of political unrest in such places as Nairobi, 184 miles southeast of here, or, for that matter, the leftist economic complaints of the rebels briefly broadcast over the Voice of Kenya before the radio station was recaptured by the Army.

But therein lies Kenya's future crucible. However unclear the political bent of the coup's two leaders, who escaped to asylum in socialist Tanzania, the botched coup was not unconnected to Kenya's mounting economic malaise.

Kenya's economy has been badly buffeted by falling world market prices for its agricultural exports, rising oil import costs, economic mismanagement, an increasingly inert government bureaucracy and high-level corruption. The income gulf between the elite urban "haves" and the underclass of "have-nots" continues to widen perceptibly, a development that bodes ill for the future of the once legendary tranquility of pre-coup Nairobi.

In a blunt speech to the nation in late October, President Moi told his almost 18 million countrymen -- 85 percent of whom live in rural Kenya -- that his government was embarking on a period of tight austerity and bureaucratic reform to combat the economic decline.

"Many difficulties have arisen from continuing global recession and inflation, sparked off originally by huge increases in the price of oil and worsened then by the reluctance of the industrialized nations to subscribe to a more equitable international economic order and development strategy," Moi said. "This whole global situation has been a major factor in slowing down the pace of our country's progress."

For most of its 19 years of independence, Kenya has been a paragon of African political stability and economic development, its prosperity built mainly on the cash incentives the government has been able to give most of its 1.7 million small farmers. Of its two major revenue-earning crops, 40 percent of its tea and 64 percent of its coffee exports are cultivated by small farmers. But since the late 1970s, tea prices have fallen 30 percent and coffee prices 37 percent.

The big question for Kenya's future is whether it can continue high payments to these farmers, who with their families number an estimated 13 million people, while suffering from sharp declines in earnings. International Monetary Fund figures show that the drop in prices for exports has caused a steady decline in vital foreign exchange reserve levels, from an average high of $470 million in 1979 down to the "desperate" tier of $179 million in October, enough for less than one month's imports.

Kenya's import-dependent industries (the country is notably lacking in mineral resources), squeezed by the lessening availability of foreign exchange, have slowed production and laid off growing numbers of urban workers in an economy plagued by an average 25 percent annual inflation rate. In a relatively small economy, Kenya's balance-of-payments deficit grew from $39 million in 1970 to an astronomical $985 million in 1980.

Through all of this, Kenya has been able to keep prices paid to farmers on domestic food staples such as corn, with a major exception several years ago, high enough to be one of the few African countries able to feed itself. That ability, which is now endangered, has saved huge sums of foreign exchange on food imports but has cost the government heavily in subsidies to keep food prices low for the 15 percent who are urban dwellers.

One group of Nairobi-based agronomists and economists feels that in the near future Kenya will not be able to support all three of its major areas of economic activity--cash crops, food staples and small industries. The first area likely to suffer, according to them, is domestic food crop production. The financially strapped government, they predict, will be forced to reduce price subsidies to farmers, despite the sharply rising costs of petroleum-based fertilizers essential for growing profitable amounts of corn.

After cutting subsidies, these experts feel that the government will not allow the price of such a widely eaten staple as corn to rise to its free market value for fear of unleashing urban unrest of the type that has caused considerable political problems for many African governments in recent years.

"Because Kenya has done so well over the years, the dissatisfaction level among Kenyans is much lower than many other African countries," said one observer, who insisted on anonymity. "Kenyan urban society, particularly Nairobi, is more volatile because of that."

Two of Kilibwoni's successful farmers, both personal friends, have had different experiences that illustrate Kenya's present farming crunch.

Richard arap Mwei said rising costs for local labor and fertilizers have reduced his profits from a high of $71 per acre of corn in 1969 to a hoped-for $17 maximum at the end of this year's harvest next month. "The labor costs don't go up as quickly, but if fertilizers continue to climb and the government price of [$12] a bag stays the same, it won't pay for me to grow more than my family can eat next season," Richard said.

If many other farmers feel as Richard does, there could be a drastic shortfall in corn production, 40 percent of which is grown by small farmers, if the government does not raise the price. One ominous sign is Kenya's failure to pay its growers of a plant used as an insecticide since November 1981, a situation that President Moi publicly apologized for to the farmers last month.

A second group of agronomists and economists directly involved in rural development projects in Kenya said that Richard arap Mwei's average per acre production of 15 bags of corn can easily be more than doubled at no extra cost up to 40 bags with just simple updating of planting techniques.

"Small farmer production potential has not been anywhere near met in Kenya yet," said a World Bank agricultural development expert. "With just a closer spacing of plants and different times for fertilizer application, farmers could be earning a great deal more than they are."

Still, just saying the new techniques will increase production does not make it so, said a farmer who has tried them, my friend Cleophas arap Moro. Following the experts' instructions last year, Cleophas planted a small experimental portion of his crop by spacing the seeds close together and planting at a shallow depth.

At night, field rats followed the rows of shallow-planted seeds and ate a considerable number, Cleophas said. Later, the winds of one of the thunderstorms of Kenya's "long rains" period uprooted the remainder of the shallowly planted corn. The bulk of his crop that had been planted using the older methods escaped the rats and was not uprooted.

"They haven't perfected all the techniques yet so it is too early for us to rely on them," Cleophas said, laughing. "Imagine what would have happened if I had planted my entire crop using the new techniques. They will eventually figure out how to increase our production, but more work has to be done."

Until that day and until the market prices for agricultural exports turn up, one of Africa's premier successes in development will have to walk a taut fiscal line if the gains of two decades are not to be lost.