On this treeless, flat-topped spine of mountain, a gaggle of British soldiers and Polish flyers soaks up the highland sun. Stripped to their shorts, greased with tropical sun oil, they recline on imported lawn chairs.

Behind them and the two snow-white Polish helicopters in which they came are the local grain carriers: 200 or so young highland men, whispering among themselves in Amharic, eyes searching the sky.

Dribbling down one side of the mountain is a crowd of about 2,500 peasants -- women holding their babies, old men holding their walking sticks, adolescents holding hands -- who have climbed up here for a seven-hour picnic of free food, free doctoring and a peek at some half-naked foreigners and their noisy flying machines.

For three days last week, this 8,528-foot-high pinnacle of rock and desiccated dirt was what the men in the lawn chairs call the "D-Zed," the "drop zone," the place where U.S. wheat falls out of the sky.

If there can be a hopeful, lighter side to Ethiopia's famine, it occurs in places like Shil Afaf in a well-practiced ritual of airborne food distribution, dirt-floor medical care and, for the British and the Poles, an African version of "Beach Blanket Bingo."

Here in this tiny village in the roadless highlands of northern Shewa province, about 170 miles north of Addis Ababa, famine has not quite arrived. Rain has failed here for two years, not three, as in the highlands farther north in Welo and Tigray provinces.

In this pocket of subsistence farmers, there is still some seed grain that has not been eaten, still some oxen that have not been sold off or starved to death.

In Shil Afaf, the airdrop helps people who are hungry, but not starving, sick but not dying.

Debre Hasan, a rheumy-eyed old woman from Shil Afaf, had been out wandering the highlands for three days, looking for food, when she heard that grain would come through the air to her home. She walked back and waited this week beside the D-Zed.

"I am happy and I am scared. I never saw an airplane landing," she said through a translator, pointing at the Polish helicopters.

The fat-bellied cargo planes that drop the grain, British Hercules and West German Transals, cannot land on this 3/4-mile-long slice of mountain that juts up a half mile above a dried-up river bed. So the helicopters come out here first, arriving at 8 a.m. to deliver a load of people, including three members of the British Army's 47th Air Dispatch Squadron.

Before they settle into their lawn chairs, the soldiers lay out the drop zone with blue markers of nylon and unpack a field radio.

An hour later, a Hercules appears in the distance. It whooshes over the field first, sizing up the mountain top and circling back for the first drop.

With a silent, somewhat terrified local audience looking on, the Hercules passes at 130 miles an hour 15 feet above the ground. Inside the plane, two Royal Air Force crewmen push 2,200 pounds of grain over rollers out the open rear hatch. They wave.

Triple-wrapped in white plastic, 40 of the 55-pound bags hit the ground hard, tumbling end over end, with about five of them exploding in golden sprays of wheat.

The Hercules makes four such drops, a total of 18 tons, before heading back to pick up more grain in Addis Ababa. The plane makes four round trips daily. The German Transal, a smaller plane that has trouble finding this obscure village, makes two.

The airdrop, called Operation Tesfa (Amharic for "hope"), began Feb. 13. Designed to deliver large quantities of grain to mountainous areas, where the largest transport vehicle is a mule, the project is a joint operation of the governments of Ethiopia, Poland, Great Britain, West Germany, the United States, Italy and medical volunteers from the private French organization, Doctors Without Borders. The British this week dropped their 5 millionth pound of grain.

After the first load of bags strikes the ground, British Army radio specialist Peter Edgington sends up the score. "That's 80 percent recoverable," he tells the Hercules pilot, eyeballing the number of bags that did not burst.

"We call these things Nepal free-drops," explains Army Sgt. Bob Szafran, shirtless, working on his two-month tan. "We did this job in Nepal in 1973 and 1980. The free-drop is by far the cheapest and fastest way to deliver food. We could use parachutes, but it slows us down and would cost too much. You see, even when the bags break, nothing is wasted. The people come out when we're done and pick up the food, grain by grain."

Yelling, "tollo, tollo" (which means, roughly, "get the lead out"), Mengishu Wejebu, chief administrator for this district of Shewa, supervises the grain carriers as they collect intact bags between passes of the cargo planes. When the three-day operation is over, he will decide who gets how much food.

Off to the side of the drop zone, about 75 yards from the sun bathers' chairs, is the medical clinic, a hut of sticks and eucalyptus branches erected by locals since the helicopters landed.

In the hut, four nurses -- one French, one Italian, two Polish -- and one Polish doctor tend to the two lines, one of children, one of adults, that tail away from the hut several hundred people long.

"It is not so bad here," said Mercedes Fernandes, a French nurse who has spent four months among the malnourished and dying at Korem feeding center, about 200 miles north of here. "The babies are so big here. For me it is almost a holiday."

A holiday, though, only by comparison to the northern camps, where tens of thousands are near death.

The parade of patients here does not present the ravages of malnutrition. Only three babies out of 100 were severely underweight. Rather, it shows the appalling normality of illness in these highlands.

Among the 200 patients seen, most have parasites in their stomachs, eye infections and skin diseases. There was a suppurating sore on a 3-year-old's face; a woman with an umbilical hernia the size of a grapefruit; a girl with a large goiter; a man with elephantiasis of the legs, a child with her nose eaten away by a kind of tuberculosis that has disappeared in the developed world.

And there was Lababa Kbrete, 12, who had a bean in her ear. At least the bean had once been in her ear. Now the bean was gone, said nurse Fernandes. In its place, the nurse said, was an infection that would destroy Kbrete's ear unless she was taken to a hospital for treatment. When the girl walked away from the clinic holding her father's hand, it was not clear that he would take her to a hospital or even if knew what a hospital was.

At 3:15 p.m., after the last drop, the British and the Poles folded up their lawn chairs, pulled on their flight suits and fired up the helicopters.

As the machines lifted away from Shil Afaf, churning up a pall of dirt and ripped plastic bags, hundreds of highlanders sprinted for the drop zone and the scattered wheat. Everyone, children and old people alike, carried a sprig of a bristly mountain weed called chifrig.

Back in the days when it rained and crops grew, these weeds were used to sweep up spilled grain.