NIAMEY, Niger – Outside the state food warehouses here, women sift in the dirt for spilled grains of rice. Seven hundred miles to the east, mothers pluck bitter green berries and boil them for hours in an attempt to feed their children. In urban slums and desert villages, one word is on all lips: famine.
   Once again Niger is facing a food crisis, a grimly familiar predicament in a vast desert country with an explosive birth-rate and rudimentary agriculture. Rains and crops failed last year – rainfall was about 70 percent below normal in the region – and now half the population of 15 million faces food shortages, officials say. Thus it was in 2005, 1985 and 1974.
   But there is a big difference this year: the new military government here is acknowledging serious hunger, trying to do something about it – and asking for help.
   Before the country’s autocratic president, Mamadou Tandja, was overthrown in February, the state warehouses remained stocked, despite the people’s need for help. Now they are largely empty of grain, a sign of how much has been distributed in recent weeks.
   The new prime minister travels the suffering countryside, asking about the food shortage. Before, Tandja would fly into a rage at the very mention of the word famine, according to officials and newspapers here.
   And when John Holmes, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator, flew in last week, his extensive caravan received a military and police escort. Though Holmes was inquiring about what had been one of Niger’s most politically delicate topics, chronic hunger, government ministers with retinues of functionaries barrelled into the dusty villages with him, and everywhere he went he was treated like a visiting head of state.
   In the 2005 famine, by contrast, U.N. agencies were accused by Tandja of collaborating with the opposition to discredit him.
   Tandja, an ardent nationalist, had participated in the 1974 coup that was precipitated in part by that year’s famine. But four years ago, while tens of thousands of children suffering from acute malnutrition flooded centres staffed by Doctors Without Borders, Tandja’s regime accused journalists covering the issue of not being patriotic.
   This year, one of the military junta’s first pronouncements was on the looming food crisis.
   At the edge of Niamey, the capital, mud-brick compounds are full of food refugees from the north. “There’s almost nothing left,” said Ramatou Bubacar, 42, who had brought her seven children down from the Tillaberi department 12 days before, hoping the city would be kinder. “Everything’s been eaten.”
The arid region was 11,000 tons short of its expected cereal production last year.
   Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, has the highest birth-rate in the world in some estimates and is near the top in others, greatly contributing to the country’s chronic food problems. In the regional capital of Zinder, south of Tanout, there are billboards for the local brand of condom, but there is nothing like a vigorous family planning effort in this Muslim country. The “overwhelming cultural attitude” militates against it, Holmes said.
In Dalli, the grain in a recent free distribution was quickly exhausted. “The children don’t eat before they go to school,” said Ali, the mother of 10. “During school breaks, the children come home, but they find nothing to eat.”