MARADI, Niger – Nasseiba Ali is the face of hunger in Niger (search). The 20-month-old girl weighs just 12 pounds, and her eyes are clouded at night, one of the symptoms of her chronic malnourishment. Nasseiba may survive because her grandmother was able to get her to a feeding center. But aid groups despair that so many other children are dying because the world was slow to respond.
"I thought we would not make it safely," Nasseiba's grandmother, Haoua Adamou, said in Hausa through an interpreter after walking several hours with the baby on her back to the emergency feeding center at Maradi, some 400 miles east of the capital, Niamey.
She sat Saturday fanning flies from Nasseiba's face.
The aid agency Oxfam (search) warned last week that about 3.6 million people, about a third of them children, face starvation in this West African nation devastated by locusts and drought. The U.N.'s humanitarian agency estimates some 800,000 children under 5 are suffering from hunger, including 150,000 faced with severe malnutrition.
The warnings have been coming for months. The United Nations (search) first appealed for assistance in November and got almost no response. Another appeal for $16 million in March generated about $1 million. The latest appeal on May 25 for $30 million has received about $10 million.
Donations jumped dramatically in the last week because of increased media attention and TV images of starving children, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said Friday. Egeland estimated that thousands of children are dying in Niger.
Nasseiba dozed fitfully in the intensive care tent of the emergency center erected by Doctors Without Borders in Maradi, where 55 other chronically malnourished children were receiving care. Her mother, who is three months pregnant, and her father stayed behind to work their farm to coax something from the dry soil come the October harvest.
Nasseiba tried several times to pull out the tiny feeding tube securely taped to her forehead and running down into her nose. She found sleep after several meager mouthfuls of enriched formula and what looked like a long, cold stare, sign of her troubled vision that leaves her blind at night.
Just a few steps from the critically sick, another ward sheltered children who have almost recovered.
Two-year-old Tsclaha weighed just 13 pounds and will need days to reach her target weight of 16 pounds before being declared cured.
Tsclaha, barely able to stand on wobbly legs, happily munched a ready-to-eat, highly nutritious peanut butter mixture. Tsclaha wore a red bracelet, signaling doctors had decided to admit her.
Nearby, 40 women carrying children waited for them to be weighed and for doctors to decide which ones would get red bracelets and which ones would get orange or yellow bracelets signifying that they, while malnourished, were well enough to be sent home with supplies of flour and cooking oil.
Outside the center, new tents are being set up to ease the burden on the already stretched facility, where nurses work round the clock to diagnose the 300 hungry children who come daily from surrounding villages.
A 16-ton shipment of oil, sugar, and nutritional paste arrived in Maradi from France on Thursday, and several more shipments were scheduled, the U.N. World Food Program said.
But the need is great and growing in this desert nation of 11.3 million regularly ranked among the world's least developed. When the first appeal was made, only $1 per day, per person would have helped solve the food crisis, the U.N. has said. Now that the situation has worsened and people are weaker, $80 will be needed per person.
"It's the worst I've seen," said Hassan Balla, a primary school teacher in Tarna, a village just outside Maradi. "What is happening is really ugly. I've seen people eat leaves ... live like animals."
Balla, however, is optimistic.
"The world is generous," he said. "Our friends heard our cries. Do you think they will let us suffer when they are living comfortably?"