While President Clinton was delivering an optimistic message about Africa's future the other day, the reality of Africa's present played itself out nearby.

Fights broke out in the huge crowd that came to see the president speak in Accra, Ghana, the first leg of his two-week, multination tour of the continent. The sun was hot and people were fighting over scarce bottles of drinking water. Police ended up whipping people with belts and canes to keep order.For all its progress in recent years, Africa remains a continent characterized by intense poverty, food shortages and political unrest. The scuffle during Clinton's speech symbolized these problems. At the same time, however, Clinton's trip symbolizes how things may be changing for the better. Unfortunately, the continent seems to be moving in baby steps.

About 700 million people live in sub-Saharan Africa, yet only 1 percent of U.S. exports are directed at the continent. Despite being rich in natural resources, Africa is plagued with political corruption and a lack of basic human rights. Its people, for the most part, are suffering.

On this trip, Clinton is also visiting Uganda, whose leader, Yoweri Museveni, is a former Marxist who rules a one-party state. Clinton will visit Rwanda, the scene of some of the world's bloodiest slaughters earlier this decade. An estimated 500,000 people - as many as came to see Clinton in Ghana - were murdered before the Tutsis won power in 1994, and killings still continue in periodic uprisings by the Hutu majority.

But he also will visit some relatively successful democracies in Botswana, Senegal and South Africa. Taken as a whole, the African continent has reason to be optimistic. Colonialism and Apartheid are gone, as are some ruthless dictators such as Idi Amin.

Clinton is right to turn his attention to Africa. By doing so, he is turning the world's attention as well. But there is little the United States or any other nation can do to force the change that is needed. He was on the right track in Ghana when he said this work "must begin here in Africa, not with aid or trade, though they are important, but first with ordinary citizens."

Unfortunately, too many of them still are fighting over the few morsels available to the masses, just as the thirsty throngs in Ghana. Perhaps the president's visit will help them see beyond their current needs to the hope of a better day.