LIKE a number of researchers in the 1970s who began to look more closely at the status of women in Africa, Achola Pala Okeyo was initially struck by the erosive influence of colonial rule on the continent's overwhelmingly rural female population.
When commercial agriculture was first introduced, Dr. Okeyo explains, the effect on society was literally to push men and women in different directions. Men were encouraged to become laborers or petty white-collar officials in towns and cities, while women stayed behind in their villages to rear children and raise food. Men from some countries, like Lesotho, were away from their families for as much as nine months of the year, working in the mines of South Africa.
The education system of colonial times likewise tended to divide families, she says. Men were sent to school first, and ''only after it was thought that these educated men needed educated wives'' were women given an opportunity to become literate.
But as Achola Okeyo listened to the individual stories of rural women in her native Kenya and neighboring countries, she became convinced that certain innate feminine strengths were also emerging.
''I said to myself, 'There must be another way of looking at this.' I mean, women are not just . . . living in squalor and feeling miserable. They recognize the dangers and difficulties they're in, and they are trying to develop strategies for dealing with them.''
The conclusion Dr. Okeyo has come to is that the great majority of African women are now experiencing what she calls ''development by contradiction.''
''The policies that were introduced (by colonial powers) often produced one kind of change which initially looked negative but which later could be translated into a positive force,'' she explains. ''Even though there was a marked deterioration of women's economic position, for example, their sense of self and their sense of independence and their energy to go on increased. They had to face up to the tasks that men used to do and they had to take on more responsibilities, and that generated a certain initiative and strength. To me, this is the edge of the future.''
She chooses her words carefully in her second language, and sets them in melodic, softly turned phrases. But the conviction behind each observation rings like a blacksmith's hammer on tried metal.
''People in rural African societies are not just sitting there passively, being bandied about by transformative forces,'' she adds. ''They are not mixed up about whose rights are at stake, and the women are very clear about what they need.
''The men do not question the women too much, either, because the women do not lie about these things. When somebody is pursuing a line of truth, people recognize it for what it is.''
HER own pursuit of truth has taken Achola Pala Okeyo from a small village in western Kenya to conferences throughout the world, where she has presented papers on the impact of socioeconomic change on women, the family, culture, and society at large in Africa.
''She spent most of her time with us observing children's behavior and interviewing their mothers,'' says Carol Embers, a professor of anthropology at Hunter College, who hired Achola Pala as a college intern on a child development program in Kenya in the late 1960s. ''She was always wonderfully enthusiastic and also very curious about the project. This was before she had decided what branch of social science she wanted to study, and she was forever asking us questions about our work.''
After graduating from the University of East Africa and completing postgraduate work in education and anthropology at Harvard, Dr. Okeyo represented her country as a member of the Kenya delegation to the United Nations. She then served as senior liaison officer with the World Conference on the UN Decade for Women and was a consultant to both UNESCO and UNICEF. She has worked for the Population Council of the Center for Policy Studies in New York and is a member of an independent panel of experts now working with the World Food Council of the UN.
Although she is a research fellow at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, she is living this year in New York with her husband, a diplomat who is a member of the Kenya delegation to the UN, and their three children, aged 5, 3, and 11/2.
In Cambridge, Mass., recently to deliver the keynote lecture at a Radcliffe College colloquium on the problems of women in developing countries, Dr. Okeyo spent a full day conducting panel discussions, stayed up most of the night to visit with friends from her graduate-school days, and still had plenty of enthusiasm left for an interview the following morning.
Instead of constantly observing negative trends, she says she would like to see today's researchers focus on how African women can figure in the solution to their societies' myriad problems. She contends that there are a number of sources of female autonomy in Africa, and she wants especially to look at the perceptions and aspirations rural women have of themselves and their families.
''There's been an overemphasis in the past on the economic and political conditions, or determinants, of women's position in Africa,'' says Pauline Peters, an assistant professor of anthropology at Harvard and an associate at the Harvard Institute for International Development. ''Now there's a growing feeling that the other aspects of women's position have been rather neglected - the cultural concepts of femalehood, of being a woman - and this is where Achola comes in. I think she's right to point to this discrepancy in current studies of African women. Fortunately, this is a field that's now being resuscitated. It will depend on good cross-cultural study, and I'm looking forward to the kind of work she's going to do,'' Ms. Peters affirms.
Together with a number of other African researchers who began to publish their work in the 1970s, Dr. Okeyo has helped to found the Association of African Women for Research and Development. The association is already getting high praise from Western scholars.
''When I was working in Kenya in the late 1960s, I always felt that the women there were career women,'' says Beatrice Whiting, professor emerita of Harvard and a distinguished scholar in residence at Radcliffe. ''They produced all the food for their families, and they had a lot of self-esteem about their capacities to provide for their children. The fact that women from East Africa and West Africa are getting together now to discuss what they've done and what they should be doing is the really important thing that's happening in Africa today.''