What first struck me was her smile – sincere, friendly and kind.
She said it was important to smile, that in her life, her smile was the one thing she knew was hers to offer people.
It was important to smile, she said, because then life would smile back at you.
I meet Mariama in the intensive care unit of a stabilisation centre for severely malnourished children run by the government and supported by Save the Children in southern Niger.
Mariama’s nine-month-old son, Idi, is laying down in a cot. He’s visibly malnourished and seriously ill.
Mariama’s concern for her son is written on her face as she looks down at him.
When I ask if she’d share her story with me, Mariama looks up, smiles, and thanks me for giving her the opportunity.
Idi recently became sick with fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. After two days he hadn’t improved so Mariama took him to a health clinic near her village.
He was referred to the stabilisation centre in Aguie, where Mariama has been staying with him since they arrived two days ago.
As we speak, Mariama takes her son gently in her arms and holds him close while she gives him a spoonful of fortified milk.
A Save the Children health worker explains that a special formula of fortified milk is given to children like Idi who arrive so badly malnourished and weak they can no longer handle anything else.
Whatever it takes
Mariama explains that first she went to her local health clinic because she was worried for her son.
When they then told her to come to the stabilisation centre, she did it without hesitating, explaining she would do whatever it takes if there was a chance it could help her son.
She shares her hopes and dreams for Idi – that he will get better and that she’ll be able to pick him up and play with him again like she does her other children.
Although none of them have enough to eat – the whole family is surviving on millet flour – none are as badly-hit as Idi, her youngest.
As I’m getting ready to leave the centre, I catch Mariama’s eye and smile.
She smiles back but it’s fleeting as she looks down at Idi and tries to feed him more fortified milk.
Her husband has come to visit, and the family sit together on the floor by the cot, focused on their son, willing him to get better.
As I drive away, my mind turns over the images of Idi, of Mariama and her smile, and the other mothers and young children I’ve met in the past few hours.
I hope they have come to the centre in time and their hopes and dreams for their children will come true.
It’s not until the next day that I hear the news from my colleague. Idi had not made it through the day.
I close my eyes and picture the family as I last saw them, sitting in a small circle on the floor of intensive care.
I think of Mariama and her wish to play with her son again. Tears come to my eyes but there is nothing I can do – no help I can offer, nothing that will make her wish come true, or bring her son back.
This mother shared her story with me less than 24 hours ago. I think of her smile and generosity and feel the injustice of it.
Life has not smiled back at Mariama. I feel devastated, heartbroken and immeasurably angry. He was nine months old, and he didn’t have to die.
I think of the other mothers I met at the stabilisation centre, at the health clinic, in the villages. There is still time for these children, it’s not too late for them.
I can’t do anything for Mariama but share her story, be her witness.
Hopefully, her story will help the world understand what’s at stake right now in parts of Niger.
Written by Annie Bodmer-Roy, Media Manager for Save the Children, Niger