Umtali, Zimbabwe — Much of the action in Zimbabwe's war of independence took place in this hilly countryside southeast of the capital of Salisbury. Today, 18 months later, Umtali - just five miles from the Mozambique border - is seething with action of a different kind as Zimbabwe rushes into the urgent task of reconstruction and nation building.
In the former ''African Section,'' behind the impressive main building of Umtali's once all-white hospital, a tiny ward has been converted into a classroom, and a nurse in starched uniform lectures to a group of young men and women. They are ''military medics,'' paramedical personnel trained in guerrilla camps, primarily in Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania, to treat the wounded of Zimbabwe's liberation army then fighting Rhodesia's white-ruled regime. In independent Zimbabwe, these former freedom fighters are learning to deliver babies and provide health care to a peacetime population.
The transformation of these young people is symbolic of the change sweeping this southern African nation. Defying the gloomy predictions of its many critics , Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's government has made an impressive start in consolidating and rebuilding this war-ravaged country, which suffered 15 years of international isolation and seven long years of a devastating civil war.
In the first year of independence, Zimbabwe's economy registered a remarkable recovery with real gross domestic product rising by more than 8 percent. Exports rose by nearly 30 percent. The mining output - Zimbabwe is rich in gold, copper, nickel, and coal - has gone up by one-third and manufacturing production is up by 15 percent. One of the benefits of the country's long economic isolation - when international sanctions were imposed against Ian Smith's regime - was that Zimbabwe now produces much of its own capital and consumer goods. In addition, the country has recently harvested a bumper maize crop, with over one million tons left for export after meeting domestic needs.
But even with the tremendous economic and morale boost that such early achievments have brought to Zimbabwe, the government is finding that it may be easier to fight a war than to cope with the problems of reconciliation and reconstruction which follow in its wake.
Prime Minister Mugabe has described the situation as ''a tale of two cities.''
On the one hand there are some 200,000 white settlers, a minuscule Asian community, and a black elite, with efficient health services, schools, material conveniences, and good housing in the neatly laid out cities of Salisbury, Bulawayo, and Umtali.
On the other there are 7 million blacks, more than 5 million of whom live in rural areas with very few schools, clinics, or other basic services. The average urban black per capita income is still only 10 percent that of whites, while that of the rural blacks is only 1 percent that of whites. Unemployment and underemployment in the country, according to one estimate, may range as high as 40 percent, and it is almost exclusively among Zimbabwe's blacks.
One of the central issues in the struggle for independence was ownership of land. But some 5,200 white commercial farmers still retain just less than half the country's best farming land. While they produce virtually all of Zimbabwe's agricultural surplus, black peasant farmers work overpopulated, overgrazed communal lands. Years of neglect, overcropping, subdivision, and soil erosion have rendered this land mostly unproductive.
The government's most serious problem is therefore meeting the explosion of expectations of the poor, rural black while at the same time resisting the temptation to nationalize land and industry which would inhibit foreign investment and force the white minority to leave. So far the government has skillfully balanced these potentially conflicting needs.
A major priority has been an ambitious land resettlement plan, whereby the government buys land from white settlers willing to sell and parcels it out to poor, landless families. Agricultural extension services, schools, health centers, and water supply points will be set up for them as well as provided to people still living in communal lands.
Among the new settlers is the Matore family, which moved from a ''Tribal Trust'' area and now owns 12 acres of land. So far, Sena Matore has only been able to grow vegetables on one of the 12 acres. But this appears to be enough. Dressed in a torn frock, with a baby strapped to her back, she stops irrigating her field with a watering can to survey her property: ''Ah, too much happiness to have my own land.'' The land has meant that for the first time her husband will not have to seek seasonal work elsewhere, leaving the family alone for months.
At Marymount College in Umtali, Peter Svinurai is training to be a rural teacher in a government crash course. He began his working life as a schoolteacher but soon went to the city where he did ''this and that,'' moving from one job to another in search of adequate pay. Will a rural school satisfy him after so many years of city life? The answer is an immediate yes. ''For the first time, I will make a decent salary which I can supplement by growing my own food. Oh yes, it will satisfy me.''
To such people the future appears bright.
Massive government spending on social services and other reforms has fueled inflation and created a budget deficit. But Zimbabwe, if it is able to continue dealing with its problems with the same pragmatism it has demonstrated in its first year, could become one of southern Africa's strongest nations. Still its second year of independence is proving to be at least as difficult as its first.