A woman's head stands on the coffee table in our parlor. Like Michelangelo's ''Reawakening Prisoner'' who is seeking liberation from his terrestrial limitations, she is at once part of and emerging from the stone from which she is carved. The artist, it would seem, perceived the face imprinted in the rock and merely chiseled the features more definitively, drawing it out from the raw material. The hair of the woman is natural gray soapstone, frizzily ridged, but the face has been polished, lovingly, to a rich burnished green. Like a genie with his lantern, the carver must have rubbed and smoothed the surface, willing the face to come alive, and he has all but succeeded, for the expression on the woman's face is hauntingly beautiful. It holds all the sadness and love, dignity and mystery, of Africa, for it is a model of an African woman carved by an African artist.

This soapstone head is not worth much monetarily, but it summons for me so much that is the essence of my native land, Zimbabwe. I see in it the faces of women who filled my childhood and feel again the warm, maternal affection, a feeling of closeness that existed between women and children, even when the woman was black and the child white. My memories of these African women are all sweet. There were adventures shared - walking through bushland chewing sugar cane, exploring the minutiae of insects and wild flowers; riding on the carrier of a bicycle on the way to school, my arms encircling the waist of the woman in front who called greetings and laughed gaily in response to the men who scythed the grass on the roadside. There was singing, in voices rich and harmonious, and long chats with cronies sitting on the sunbaked earth; and the crafting of gifts from odds and ends, some scavenged from the garbage chucked out by the private hotel up the road. There is nothing harsh about these recollections. They are all of warmth and love and fun, small pleasures of earth and sky and humanity.

But there is another memory that is conjured up by that same small sculpture. We found it during my last trip home. For a little while I had become a tourist, seeing my country through the eyes of someone visiting for the first time. One of our excursions took us to a model African village, complete with brush fence and neat thatched mud huts. At the far end of the kraal, in striking contrast to the old traditional life style, there were workshops, catering to modern consumerism, with machinery to aid the mass production of leather goods and goods in wood and clay. As we trooped through the ''village,'' oblivious to a whole way of life that few have tried to understand until now when it is passing into irrecoverable history, the eyes of most were focused on the gifts that could be bought at the far end, where a few women crocheted mats or did their beadwork, and some men were chiseling by hand from wood or stone. One of the ''attractions'' to which the guide motioned was an old man, seated outside the door of a hut. He was adorned as a warrior, an elegant shield of skin and a spear beside him. His eyes were intent upon the wooden mask he carved, ignoring us as best he could.

I found I simply could not walk past him as if he were a stuffed museum piece. I wanted to atone for our insensitivity in some way, but I did not know how. I wanted to say, ''Look, I'm not a tourist. I, too, am a native of this land, with some understanding of its customs and a little knowledge of the people and their values.'' I wanted to tell him how infinitely sad it made me to see him reduced to this; that learning was a two-way street, for while progress had moved in at the other end of the kraal, there was so much wisdom he could impart to all of us from the place where he sat.

The old man had not raised his head as the crowd filed by him, but as I stood in front of him awkwardly, thinking vaguely that there was something rude and ignorant about being elevated above him, he lifted his head and looked at me. At first I was impressed by the sadness I saw in his eyes as if yearning for a proud past. Then I was struck by the gentleness, born of love for the land and the traditions that had imbued him with patience and strength and harmony with nature. Finally I was aware of an innate dignity about him and that mysterious quality that seems to pervade Africa, continually drawing one back. We exchanged not a word, yet I had an uncanny feeling he knew what was on my mind. Whether he appreciated my discomfort or blamed me for his diminished role remains a mystery to me. Perhaps there was a little of both, and he left it to me to derive what I deserved.

At times, the woman's head in our parlor can make me feel guilty that I am of Caucasian origin and therefore responsible for changing Africa. Yet the expression on her face, as on the old man's, is infinitely gentle and sympathetic, for now she and I both look back on what used to be and know that the past has gone forever. It was inevitable that Africa should liberate herself from her terrestrial limitations.

We are chiseled from the same stone, my African woman and I. We have seen things and lived through times that will fade into history, but they will be forever etched deeply into our faces and our souls.

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