MARADI, Niger — The frail baby boy she cradles has arms no thicker than her finger. His belly has hollowed and his skin has sagged as his weight has dropped.
Rakiya Nassirou weeps constantly over her son, wondering what is happening to him and whether God is angry with her. But 6-month-old Rabiou is not her only worry. Another boy, 3-year-old Moussa, is with her at this feeding station run by Doctors Without Borders. Nassirou left four more children and her sick husband back home in their village two weeks ago with no food.
The aid agencies now scrambling to save these children say it didn't have to be this way.
In the best of circumstances, they acknowledge, hunger shadows Niger and its neighbors along the southern edge of the Sahara desert. Malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and other ills kill one in four children before the age of 5.
But last fall, things got much worse. The rains didn't come. Then the locusts, the worst infestation in 15 years, arrived.
A United Nations appeal in November for help for Niger was all but ignored. Another appeal in March for $16 million resulted in about $1 million in contributions. Even as world attention was focused on Africa last month at a Group of 8 summit of the world's richest nations, little happened. Niger was offered debt forgiveness, but nothing was done about the hunger issue.
The crisis underscores one of the long-standing problems faced by international relief agencies. It is much easier to raise money once starvation has set in and children are dying than to prod donors to head off a looming crisis.
Now, the World Food Program estimates 2.5 million of Niger's nearly 12 million people are at risk of hunger; 1.6 million of them need immediate help. And the crisis is spreading. An additional 1.5 million people in neighboring Mali, Mauritania and Burkino Faso need food aid.
Only recent television footage of starving children has started making a difference.
"We are going into the worst period of the year, in the coming four to five weeks, with the rainy period and diarrhea. And this is the last month before the harvest, meaning there are few food stocks and they are running very low," said Johanne Sekkenes, head of mission at Doctors Without Borders in Niamey, Niger's capital.
Doctors Without Borders is admitting nearly 1,300 children a week to its emergency feeding program in the Maradi region, 340 miles east of Niamey. The numbers are still rising.
The group has treated almost 15,000 severely malnourished children since January, 5% of whom died. According to UNICEF, 192,000 malnourished children in Niger need help, 32,000 of whom are severely malnourished and facing death.
Niger is nearly three times the size of California, but two-thirds of it is desert and only 15% of the land is suitable for farming. It is regarded as the second-poorest country on Earth, ahead only of Sierra Leone, another western African country.
Most of the population depends on herding and subsistence agriculture. It rarely raises a blip on the radar of international affairs. The last time it made headlines was before the Iraq war, when reports surfaced that uranium yellow cake from Niger had found its way to Saddam Hussein. The report turned out to be false.
Women often bear the brunt of Niger's crises, since many men travel to neighboring countries for work, often for years at a time.
Nassirou fears that the revolving cycle of hunger is not the result of fickle rains, but the wrath of God.
"Maybe God curses us," she said. "God blames us."
"I hope God will give us life and health and take us out of this poverty."
Lying on a blanket at the feeding center, she said, "I cry because I cannot understand what is happening to my son. I cry because I don't know what to do. I have been crying ever since I got here.
"I'll do anything for him to get better," she said, gazing down at her baby with melting eyes. "There's nothing more precious than a child."
Dr. Chantal Umutoni, in the intensive care unit at the feeding station, said she was sad and angry over the delayed international response.
"Maybe those lives could have been saved," she said.
A starving boy named Mamane Sani Abdou, 13 months, was admitted to the feeding program Thursday, a frail, listless child with starkly protruding ribs and stick-like limbs that were limp. His mother, Babi Abdou, 20, fed him a few spoonfuls of enriched milk, which he coughed up before sagging back, panting desperately from the effort.
"Before, he used to drink a whole cup of milk," said Abdou, who said her boy first fell ill after being circumcised two months ago. She spent all her savings, about $12, first on traditional medicine and then Western medication.
A child in similar condition, 16-month-old Saidou Saiman, came into intensive care at 11 a.m. Wednesday, "too sick to even make a sound," Umutoni said. Just after midday, his heart failed. He was resuscitated but died about 4 p.m.
His mother composed herself and took her child home for burial.