The tall woman clutched the starving, nearly naked waif to her and, fighting back tears said: "His body feels thinner than ones I've buried."

The child, an emaciated 6-year-old victim of the Karamoja drought in northeast Uganda, just held on tight to her benefactor. She was the latest recipient of an unusual personal kind of care from the United Nations.

The world organization, often known for its abundance of bureaucrats who remain rooted to their desks, has a different image in Uganda, at least, as a result of the tireless efforts of Melissa Wells, the head U.N. official in the country.

Wells, trying to help save tens of thousands of starving Karamojong, has put the limited number of U.N. personnel in the country to work directly in the field to distribute badly needed food. She frequently visits missions and hospitals doing relief work in the province to check on needs and boost morale.

Normally, the United Nations simply arranges for donors and provides the aid to the government to distribute. In Uganda, however, there is scarecely any effective government, following the overthrow of Idi Amin and two of his successors in 13 months.

So Wells, a former American ambassador on loan to the United Nations from the State Department, has stepped in with her own personal form of diplomacy. It ranges from passing her "begging bowl" among the international community to nurturing of starving children.

It also sometimes involves helping to bury the children who no longer can be helped.

The title given to Wells in Swahili by her drivers and guards probably best combines the personal and professional aspects of her work.

It literally means "mother ambassador of all the nations of the world." That is the closest Swahili comes to U.N. Development Program resident representative, the position Wells has held since last September.

As one of the State Department's first women career ambassadors, Estonian-born Wells, 47, came up through the ranks in a fairly routine manner. She became Washington's first envoy to newly independent Guinea Bissau in West Africa in 1976 and later was appointed the U.S. representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council in New York.

Wells is probably the only ambassador who worked in a Las Vegas chorus line. An athletic, 5-foot-11 southern Californian, she was a star swimmer as a teen-ager. That got her a part in the "Aquaparade of 1953," which combined Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming and standard Las Vegas musical fare.

The "Aquaparade" led Wells to an unusual first contact with the Foreign Service. The group embarked on a year-long tour of Europe, went broke and had to be repatriated by the State Department from Paris.

Five years later, she began training in the Foreign Service after graduating from Georgetown University.

In those days it was difficult for a woman to break into the State Department. "If you told them you'd like to be married some day," Wells said, "the examining panel would just say, 'go away little girl'."

She said she replied, "Look, I'm six feet tall and weigh two pounds more than Sugar Ray Robinson," then the world welterweight (147 pound) boxing champion. "They laughed and dropped the subject," she said.

However she did marry -- a foreign service officer, Alfred Wells.

They divorced in the 1960s but got back together later although they have never remarried.

Alfred, now a housing consultant for the United Nations, lives in Nairobi, Kenya, with their younger son, Gregory, 13. Christopher, 19, their other child, is a student at Columbia University in New York. Melissa is a frequent commuter to Nairobi.

Explaining her preoccupation with Karamoja, she said, "I must take these trips -- it's like a rope, a lifeline."

With unrest in the province growing, the trips are becoming more and more dangerous. Wells always travels with an armed guard, but he would be no match for the raiders who are terrorizing the area.

Asked if she has any difficulty with U.N. headquarters over her trips, she said only that "occasionally I use some four-letter words."

In a firm voice, she added, "If feeding these people doesn't make sense, nothing does."