Hunger stalking children in Senegal

Serious food shortage caused by drought ‘difficult but there is nothing we can do’

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GOUDOUDE DIOBE, Senegal — It’s 10 a.m., and the 2-year-old is still waiting for breakfast. Aliou Seyni Diallo collapses to his knees in tears and plops his forehead down on the dirt outside his family’s hut.

Soon he is wailing inconsolably and writhing on his back in the sand. A neighbor spots him, picks him up easily by one arm, and gives him a little uncooked millet in a metal bowl. The toddler shovels it into his mouth with sticky fingers coated in tears and grime. The crying stops, for the moment.

Each day is a struggle for the women of this parched village in north Senegal to keep hungry children at bay, as they search desperately for food. Aliou’s mother can recall only one time in her life when it was worse — and that was more than 20 years ago.

“I start a fire, put a pot of water on it and tell the children I am in the middle of preparing something,” Maryam Sy, 37 and a mother of nine, says in a raspy voice. “In reality, I have nothing.”

Here are the two most alarming things about Aliou’s story:

Wanting food, of which there is none, 2-year-old Aliou Seyni Diallo collapses in tears in the Senegal village of Goudoude Diobe.

Enlarge Photo

Wanting food, of which there is none, 2-year-old Aliou Seyni Diallo collapses ... more >

He lives in the richest country in the Sahel, a belt across Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea south of the Sahara desert.

And the worst is yet to come.

More than 1 million children younger than 5 in this wide, arid swath of Africa are at risk because of a food shortage so severe that it threatens their lives, UNICEF estimates.

In Senegal, which is relatively stable and prosperous, malnutrition among children in the north has surpassed 14 percent, just shy of the World Health Organization threshold for an emergency.

Hunger in this region is a lurking predator that never quite leaves, and it comes back every year to pick off the weakest. Even in a noncrisis year, some 300,000 children die from lack of food across West and Central Africa. All it takes is a drought and a failed harvest, and those who are barely living on one meal a day will starve.

Since late 2011, aid groups have been sounding the alarm about how drought is once again devastating communities where children live perilously close to the edge. But not enough donations have come in.

The situation is worst in Niger, Chad and Mali, where political chaos has forced hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in places where people don’t have enough to eat themselves.

But in a worrisome sign, this time the crisis also threatens 20,000 children in northern Senegal — little rag dolls with just enough energy to bury their faces in their mothers’ dresses.

Hot, dry, dusty

“If you don’t get certain nutrients, your brain is damaged and you can never recover,” said Martin Dawes, West Africa spokesman for the U.N. children’s agency. “You are then obviously far more vulnerable to a reduction in your food bowl turning into acute and severe malnutrition.”

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