GUIDAMONJI, Niger - What little food they had ran out a long time ago and, if they were "looking well fed", as their president has said, it was on leaves and plants.
But yesterday the dispossessed of Guidamonji were the first to benefit from the start of the long-awaited UN aid distribution in Niger.
Hundreds had trudged for dozens of miles under a baking sun to get to the relief centre at Dukukuneye, and there they waited patiently for their first real sustenance in over three months.
Twenty-four hours earlier Mamadou Tandja, the ruler of Niger, had declared that all this talk of mass starvation was just "foreign propaganda .... deception to obtain increased funding" by the United Nations and aid agencies.
What problems there are, he said, "are not serious."Abadi Kokari, the 62-year-old village chief shook his head.
"I am sure the problems are not serious in the president's mansion. But it is a bit different for us here in the bush. Perhaps the president would like to come and have dinner with us here?" he laughed.
"I am an old man and have never seen a blight this bad for 50 years. We have been living like animals. We have been eating leaves from the trees. People have had poisoned plants and they have died.
"Just two days ago we had two stillborn babies because the mothers were starving. We are grateful for this food, but it is not coming from the government is it? It is coming from foreigners."
The aid, from the World Food Programme, is being distributed by the international charity World Vision. It aims to reach 165,000 villages between the towns of Maradi and Zindar in the next two months.
The United Nations says the combined effects of drought and crop-destroying locusts have left some 3.6 million people here facing severe food shortages. Children are most at risk, with some 800,000 under the age of 5 who need to be fed urgently, the United Nations says.
"The president will say what he will, but all you have to do is to look at the way these people are living to appreciate that we have a serious food crisis," said the organisation's relief manager, Emmanuel Isch.
Three-year-old Noura is shivering despite the blistering heat. She has fever and a high temperature.
"We have come here for food but I am hoping someone will treat my daughter. I want her to get medicine before it is too late.
"We have been eating things from the trees for the last two months. We boil them first, but they are not good for you. My seven children, my husband and I have all been vomiting. I was so sick the last time I have not eaten for four days," said her mother Khatima, aged 30.
Sami Bube, a seven-year-old boy, watched the sacks of aid being unloaded from the truck and asked his mother: "Will it be good to eat? I am very hungry." His parents made him eat leaves and plants but "it was very bitter. I used to spit it out, it hurt my stomach. We have not had good food for a long time."
Hanef Diawalla, the prefect of the region, a portly man who does not appear to have missed many meals in his life, made a flying visit to the relief operation in a fleet of air-conditioned four-wheel drive vehicles. What did he think of the president's remarks about the crisis, or the lack of it?
"I am a government official, what do you expect me to say?" he giggled. "I agree with the president, this year is no more bad than other years. We have always had problems with the lack of rain and locusts. The government is doing everything it can to improve matters, I promise you that."
The UN agency will distribute food in Niger over the next two months. A second round of rations is due in September to help villagers until the harvest in October. At the end of last month, the WFP distributed about 3,300 tons of food to humanitarian groups for severely malnourished children at special centres.
- THE INDEPENDENTBy Kim Sengupta