The farmer's wife bounced her blond baby daughter on her knee, keeping the youngster clear of the holstered pistol hanging from the mother's gunbelt.

During three hours of conversation and lunch the woman stayed armed, as did her house guest from Britain. The farmer kept his G3 rifle just a few feet away during the meal.

For the white farmers of Matabeleland, the embattled southwestern quarter of Zimbabwe where the Army is trying to stamp out dissidents, the violence is almost like the old days when the country was called Rhodesia and whites fought in a vain attempt to stave off black-majority rule.

The farmers are once more armed--some with rifles issued by the Army--and have their "agric-alert" radio system, allowing them to call each other or the police for emergency assistance. They have not yet, however, reinstalled the complex remote-controlled detonation devices used during the civil war.

Also unlike the war years of the 1970s, they are unwilling to allow reporters to identify them. "We have to go on living here," the mother said in explaining her request for anonymity.

In a strange way, the Army's actions against civilians after a spate of dissident violence around the first of the year have brought out racial differences again in this southern African country.

Church and nongovernment relief officials report that hundreds of black civilians were killed as the North Korean-trained 5 Brigade swept through Matabeleland seeking the dissidents, often terrorizing the inhabitants in order to cut off local support. Reports of killings have tapered off in recent days.

The farmers told of numerous, often brutal killings of blacks, including their workers. They said, however, that no whites had been killed since about 240 soldiers of the brigade started operations in late January in the Nyamandhlovu area, about 40 miles northwest of Bulawayo, the provincial capital.

For nine months before that, 35 to 40 whites were killed throughout Matabeleland as the dissidents, who the government charges are loyal to opposition leader Joshua Nkomo, started operations.

One farmer acknowledged that 5 Brigade "is protecting us" and noted with embarrassment that the white farmers were in no position to criticize the offensive since they appealed for troops to be sent in at the turn of the year.

In addition, the government has reissued to the farmers Army weapons and ammunition taken from them after independence. In the Nyamandhlovu area alone, 42 G3s, a standard North Atlantic Treaty Organization rifle, have been issued.

The license for the weapons authorizes the farmers to carry them at any time.

Issued by the brigade commander, the license warns that "any government personnel who ignore this instruction or inconvenience [the bearer] in any way will be severely dealt with."

That represents a significant turnaround for the government of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe since a number of white farmers were arrested last year on charges of illegally keeping weapons.

The current security problem is limited to Matabeleland, where farmers told Mugabe last September that they would leave unless conditions improved. The farmer who chaired that meeting was in Australia last week examining possibilities there.

So far, few white farm owners, who are mainly responsible for Zimbabwe's food surpluses, have left the country.

One farmer, who said he had always favored black-majority rule, expected that the "protection" of 5 Brigade would be short-lived. Once the troops pull out, he said, the dissidents will return and regard the whites as enemies, since they have been armed by the government.

In a tone of despair, he said, "We can't go on forever living with this thing [his rifle] by the door and the agric-alert in the bedroom. At least during the war, you knew it had to end with negotiations."

Now, he added, there is black rule but the killing is continuing.

His wife said she worried about how violence had become a way of life for their children and recounted, "My daughter said to the cook the other night when he was leaving, 'Good night, Peter. Don't get killed.' "