First the two white visitors were mistaken for policemen out to arrest errant villagers, then for potential employers of unemployed youth and finally for British colonial administrators miraculously returned to set independent Ghana right.

A trip to this once prosperous cocoa-growing town of 2,000 less than 50 miles as the crow flies from the capital of Accra reflects the gradual decline that has overcome independent Africa's once most prosperous and literate land.

Off the main highway, the once-paved road gives way to long patches of deeply rutted laterite that will become impassable with the spring rains.

The roadside stands that used to dispense cold beer--the status drink of Africa--now sell calabashes full of palm wine.

There is no beer out in the bush, and very little available on the black market at outrageous prices in Accra and other big cities.

Business is slow. A calabash costs 4 cedis--$1.45 at the official exchange rate and a third of the minimum daily wage.

The village is without electricity, its tin roofs rusting and its mud brick buildings badly in need of paint.

The visitors are received by Chief Kwame Baafo, resplendent in native Ghanaian kente cloth thrown over the shoulder much like a Roman toga.

Seated on his stool of office decorated with a carved elephant, surrounded by his advisers, the chief has exercised his authority for all but 10 of his 61 years.

But in the past year he has had to share power with the democratically elected People's Defense Committee, a 15-man organization headed by a former teacher named F.A. Bello.

The chief vaguely concedes that the committee has kept burglars away and cleaned out a ditch or two thanks to its call for communal village labor, but he seems far from enthusiastic.

Bello is most deferential to Kwame Baafo, who like other chiefs in Ghana is a rich man because he owns the village land. In Asuoka's case the land is fertile since, as he explains, it is watered by a river "which never runs dry."

The main problem, even in Asuoka, is food. There was barely enough "before" and now "we are all suffering," the chief said.

By that he meant before the hundred or so young men returned from Nigeria two months ago, abruptly expelled and dumped on a village that they occasionally had helped by sending home an odd banknote to buy a chicken or yam.

"They did not inform me when they left," the chief said as if to disclaim any responsibility for their travail. He had obeyed the government's injunction to release land for the men returning from Nigeria.

But the government had not kept its promise to provide fertilizer, seeds, hoes and cutlasses. Would the "Agege boys," as the young men are called because of a suburb of that name in the Nigerian capital of Lagos, would they really go back to work the earth they had fled for city lights?

"They are suffering," the chief said. "There is no money at all."

Clad in laceless tennis shoes, an Adidas T-shirt and blue jeans, Mohammed Essien, 27, swore he would never return to Nigeria where he worked five years in a bottling plant.

"We need help from the British and the Americans," he said. "I am ready to stay and help my village, but we need help."

"We never see anything from the government," he said. He had made two trips in his truck between Lagos and Asuoka to transport villagers to safety.

He and his friends wanted to use the truck to take cocoa and other farm produce to market. But they had no money, no spare parts for the truck. The Nigerians had robbed them of all savings at the Nigerian border. And in any case, there was no gasoline in the bush.

Bello and the other defense committee members nodded in agreement.

A man named Ben Anokye, a self-styled "capitalist" who returned to the village after his spare parts business in Accra failed, railed against the committee, known as the PDC.

True to the ancient tradition of village democracy, the members of the new order did nothing to shut him up. Nor did the chief.

"I am against the revolution," Anokye said. "The PDC do nothing, they no longer farm. But when the commodities arrive--a handful of rice or soap or sugar--they always take more than their share."

Were things better under the British, the visitors asked. The chief diplomatically replied, "Under the British things were moving forward. Now we take it like it is." The expression on his face said the first quarter century of independence had been bitter medicine.

But the message was put more frankly by Kwasi Kyere, who claimed to be 110 years old. He was reclining on a chair and had sent a daughter out to ask the visitors to talk to him in his compound.

"Things were very good under the whites," he said, "and I am delighted to see you here," making clear he was convinced the visitors were younger versions of the district officers he had known so long ago.

"When I was a boy," he said, "we were paid nine shillings a load," the 66-pound unit of cocoa used in colonial times. "Now I am paid much more, but the money is worthless and buys nothing."