By KRISTA LARSON, Associated Press
GOUDOUDE DIOBE, Senegal (AP) — 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 non-crisis year, some 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 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.
"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 (43 degrees Celsius), and it's been a month since the restless children last ate meat, at a neighbor's wedding.