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 now 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 only recall 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: He lives in the richest country in the Sahel, and the worst is yet to come.
More than 1 million children under 5 in this wide, arid swath of Africa below the Sahara are now at risk 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 already 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 comes back every year to pick off the weakest. Even in a noncrisis year, about 300,000 children die from lack of food across western and central Africa. All it takes is a drought and a failed harvest, and those who are now 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.
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.
"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."
Already the signs of damage are there.
Aliou's 3-year-old sister Fatimata and 8-year-old sister Kadja have orangish hair growing in at the roots — a telltale sign of the protein deficiency that comes from eating just one bowl of porridge a day. The girls are neatly dressed, but their clavicles poke through their tops like hangers.
Haby, their 4-year-old sister, has streaks of orangish-blonde hair that frame her face, almost as blonde as the Cinderella cartoon character printed on her dusty T-shirt. Her mother worriedly smooths down the wisps around her braids. She does not know the culprit is lack of protein; she wonders if it's something in the water.
The U.N. World Food Programme serves lunch at school, but the Diallo sisters don't go. Their parents can't afford the school supplies.
It's noon in Goudoude Diobe, where women traditionally spend hours stewing the midday meal. But there is no smell of cooking vegetables or spices, no clanging of multiple pots — only the sound of roosters crowing and children crying.
Down a dusty trail, Samba Bayla's sister-in-law is starting to cook the only meal of the day for a family of 10, usually eaten around 2 p.m. She displays a small bowl of uncooked millet and another bowl with just a few small dried fish that altogether would fit inside a pair of clasped hands.
The knobby-kneed children crowd inside a building where the water's boiling, despite the scalding heat and heavy smoke. The midday temperatures here soar to 109 degrees Fahrenheit, and it's been a month since the restless children last ate meat, at a neighbor's wedding.
"The situation is difficult but there is nothing we can do," says Bayla. "We tell them just a few hours more."
It's not supposed to be this way in Senegal, a country of more than 12 million people where sushi bars dot the seaside capital. Still, most Senegalese live in rural areas, their lives and livelihoods beholden to the right recipe of rain.
Here in the northeast region of Matam, the drought couldn't have come at a worse time. The country is already battling high food prices. And because of the global economic downturn, fewer Senegalese in this region have family members working abroad and sending money back home.
When the rains here came late this year, they were sporadic at best. Crops failed, and the extra food stored for emergencies has been eaten. The next planting season is still months away.
Bayla grew millet and sorghum, while his wife sometimes made $2 selling incense. But grain production was down 36 percent over last year across Senegal. And those who want to buy millet after their own crops failed are paying 27 percent more compared to 2011.
"You are faced basically with households that have less of a harvest compared to what they usually have, and they are facing higher prices on the market," said Ingeborg Maria Breuer, Senegal's representative and country director for the U.N. World Food Programme.
On the dusty sand roads that lead to remote villages, goats stand on their hind legs to eat the only vegetation in sight — thorny acacia trees.
The lucky villagers have relatives working in the capital of Dakar, or abroad in Europe. But even work there is harder to find; a job may only last a few months, so the amount trickling back to these rural communities has decreased considerably.
In better times, there was a vegetable garden in Goudoude Diobe, with cabbage and eggplants for a community of nearly 1,300 people. Families grew enough millet, sorghum and corn to feed the village and its 250 children.
Now most here, even the breast-feeding mothers, eat only a bowl of rice once a day. If they are lucky, it is cooked with oil.
What should have been dinnertime already has passed, and now Kadja Dembel Ba calculates that she needs to keep her children busy for at least two more hours.
Today she was lucky. She walked several hours to lug some rice back from the nearby town to her village, Fass, for her seven children.
But as she looks at her 3-year-old son Yaya Feyni, she knows it's not enough. While other boys play outside, he lies on a bed behind his mother, listless and pale. Yaya has always been small compared to his brothers, she says, and now he is sick and won't eat anything.
She tends to him while her 1-year-old son squirms in her lap, as her 5- and 7-year-olds hover nearby.
The family already has sold a cow to buy medicine for her husband, who is sick with a stomach ailment and cannot work. The drugs set the family back some $8 — which could have bought them 10 kilograms of rice.
The stress of finding enough food for Kadja Dembel Ba's children seems unending. And by the time this lean season ends in a few months, there will be one more to feed, she says as she touches her pregnant belly.3 comments on this story
On good days, the children in Fass will play with their friends until dark in the dusty village. Their stomachs, though, have not forgotten that no dinner was served.
It will be another restless night inside the family's thatched hut. Some of the children cannot sleep, Ba says. They are just too hungry.
Back in Goudoude Diobe, the wailing toddler's mother hopes for a few hours of peace before the night. Tomorrow, there will be no breakfast. There will be only the prayer she says every morning, asking God to help her family and her neighbors.
So far, it has not been answered.