Should things continue as they are, Rabi Ibrahima will soon have no choice but to return to the termite mounds. How else will she feed her children?
Dotted across the parched desert landscape these conical heaps of sand, moulded from the bugs' saliva, are home to insect communities which thrive in a place where human beings scarcely survive.
This, after all, is officially the worst place in the world to be a mother and the simple, appalling fact is that here termites often have more to eat than infant toddlers.
Rabi, now 48, has been in this situation before.
During the dry season here in the Sahel-Sahara region of Niger there are often moments when things are truly desperate, and it was back in 1984 that she encountered the toughest time in her life.
"There was no hope, and we had to leave the village completely", she recalls.
What Rabi went on to tell me was a story of endurance and fortitude that I struggled to comprehend. For four days, over 80 kilometres, in temperatures well in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, she trekked across an unforgiving desolate terrain that at times resembles the surface of the moon.
This she did with her then-youngest child strapped to her back and the other carried in her aching arms, with next to no food or water.
Even when she finally made it to the regional city of Tahoua it was to scratch a living doing whatever work she could find to provide a few morsels for her children.
To experience such things once in a lifetime is bad enough, but Rabi Ibrahima, along with millions of other mothers and children in eight countries across the Sahel, is at this moment facing the same ordeal all over again.
Niger, already next-to-last on the United Nations' Human Development Index, has become one of the hungriest places on earth.
Here some 80% of harvests have failed because of prolonged drought. What few crops there were have been stripped by swarms of locusts, tripling food prices and leaving the poorest families like Rabi's reduced to raiding the termite mounds.
"When there is nothing left to eat we break down the termite nests where the insects store little amounts of grain, and if we're lucky we find enough for a few cups that we ground down into a paste," explains Rabi.
"It helps a bit but after an hour or so you are hungry again," she adds, describing a desperate daily ritual carried out by as many as a quarter of the households in her village of Sarou.
Situated in as remote a spot as it's possible to imagine, it had taken many hours by jeep to get to Rabi's community of mud-and-grass huts.
Along the way there is nothing but mile after mile of baked sand and rock, with no trace of moisture. Here and there sit empty, abandoned villages.
The trail of footprints in the sand heading out into the wilderness is the only ghostly clue to those villagers for whom life had become so bleak they had no choice but to move on in the hope of survival.
Stepping into the oven-like heat from the rarefied atmosphere of an air-conditioned jeep, you cannot help ponder what it must be like to draw the short straw in life that means a child is born into this unremittingly harsh place – while others are blessed with the comparative luxury of the developed world.
Chamsia Maazou, five, already knows about this harshness. Some months ago Chamsia's mother carried her across many miles of desert to the nearest clinic after the girl's left foot had become infected.
It was a difficult journey and one made so late it resulted in an amputation before her mother ferried Chamsia all the way back again to Sarou.
When I meet Chamsia she still managed a smile despite the fact that her right foot has recently also become infected.
Wrapped in a filthy bloodstained bandage, it is only a matter of time before that limb too is lost, leaving a little girl with the most terrible disability and facing a life sentence of helplessness and suffering. As the aid workers I was accompanying from the humanitarian agency Concern Worldwide discussed ways of getting Chamsia back to hospital in Tahoua, I cast an eye around me at the village and scores of other children, many showing the early signs of malnutrition.
Nearby, just a few yards away at one of the domed mud storage huts that serve as a depository for millet in better times, a starving camel, its ribs protruding like grid-irons, had thrust its neck and head into the hut in search of some scraps of non-existent sustenance.
Even these animals, "'ships of the desert'", renowned for their hardiness, are, it seems, falling to the hunger that grips Niger.
Nearby, within view, were the men with guns across their chests who are our constant shadows.
The armed gendarmarie who escort us with their heavy machine-guns mounted on pickup trucks, are there for our safety.
For as if Niger's drought, locusts environmental degradation, climate-change damage and food shortages were not enough, the Sahel region is wracked by insecurity.
The local franchise of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) has made its presence felt, kidnapping and sometimes killing foreign workers.
The overflow of refugees from neighbouring Mali, which has recently undergone an uprising of the Tuareg people who criss-cross the Sahel and Sahara, has also increased the strain on a country struggling to cope.
While most Nigeriens are Muslim, most reject these men of violence and have little truck with jihadism. Far and away the biggest concerns of ordinary people here are ensuring they do not die of thirst, hunger or disease.
To such people water is everything. Like the sickness and wars that bedevil so many parts of African, here in Niger water and the daily search for it keeps children out of school, should their communities be lucky enough to have one in the first place.
Time and again far into the desert you will see strings of donkeys with giant plastic jerrycans strapped to their sides, ridden by children as young as nine or 10. Tasked with such a crucial chore, the more such children work, the less time they spend in makeshift classrooms and schools like the one I visited in a village called Tonga Illi near the city of Tahoua.
"Once the rainy season arrives, parents need to take the children to whatever farming plots they might have and often these are far away, meaning constant disruption to their education," says Harouna Maidabo, a regional inspector of schools near Tahoua who has the difficult job of trying to ensure youngsters don't miss classes.
Sadly, right now, school is the last thing on many families' minds as they struggle to survive the latest drought and hunger crisis. Almost invariably, too, it is women and children in local communities here that bear the brunt of the hardship as the menfolk head off in search of work in countries neighbouring Niger such as Libya and Ivory Coast.
Assou Mana Mahatan is the chief of Takabalan, a mainly Tuareg village. He says he can rarely remember a year as bad as this.
"It really depresses me. I lose sleep over this and if the situation gets much worse and many more people are forced to leave the village will become non-existent," he warns.
As he talks, surrounding us are scores of women and children, the majority of whose menfolk have already been forced to migrate in search of work and money they try to send back to ensure their families do not go hungry.
Despite the hardships the villagers of Takabalan face they are overwhelming in their hospitality when I visit. Chief Mana Mahatan insists there are still hopes and aspirations here.
"Who knows, perhaps one day you might come back and see cars," he says, a certain irony in his voice before quickly adding that for now the villagers only priority is "water, seeds, and livestock".
To that end humanitarian agencies like Concern Worldwide and others are doing all they can to respond to the current crisis, flagging up what aid workers here call the "dangerous delay" that could so easily result in a full-blown famine like the one that gripped East African countries Somalia and Ethiopia last year.
"The nature of the crisis in Niger requires both emergency and long-term programming", explains Carol Morgan, Concern's Regional Director.
Already the organisation has implemented food security and nutrition programmes, agriculture inputs and cash transfers to 5348 households.
Back in the village of Sarou, Rabi Ibrahima says that without Concern's help she would in the past have been forced to visit the termite mounds more often or leave the village in difficult times in order to feed her family.
"I am one of the poorest women in the village, and when I was receiving help from Concern's cash transfers, I never needed to cross the desert to Tahoua for work or dig out the termite nests for food," she tells me.
Small as the sum of money was that Rabi received, it enabled her to start her own local livelihood scheme buying and selling firewood and other basic essentials.
It may come as a surprise to many of us in the developed world that such small contributions can make such a difference to the quality of life for the poorest and most vulnerable people in places like Niger, but that is precisely what it does.
Having said that, the scale and imminent onset of the hunger crisis now facing the Sahel region is such that a massive mobilisation is needed right now if millions of people are not to be exposed to a full-scale famine.
Only on Thursday Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, warned that the next three weeks will be crucial in bringing much-needed relief to the 18 million people at risk.
"The critical period is in the next few weeks before the rainy season starts and things become even more difficult to get aid to the people," said Amos. "We have started responding earlier and if we give this crisis the attention that it requires then it would mean it does not get as bad as things got in the Horn of Africa last year," she added.
Time, then, is of the essence, though for some of the youngest and frailest it has all but already run out. At the Concern supported-clinic at the regional hospital in Tahoua town, Doctor Sabo Sahabi takes me round the stifling makeshift wards filling up with severely malnourished children, many suffering from additional medical complications.
Lying on one bed, emaciated, eyes listless, bones sticking through skin like shrivelled parchment, lies six-month-old Agaicha, struggling to stay in a world that has so far dealt her such a terrible hand in life.
And so the hunger begins again, and many more people among Niger's poorest communities and others across the Sahel look to the termite nests to feed their children. Unless, that is, we act now.
'The next few weeks before the rainy season starts are critical'