Fulani herdsman Dabelle Kah still recalls with a shudder the long periods when the six-year Sahel drought reduced his daily meal to a cup of tea and, in 1973, killed 88 head of his life-giving 98-head cattle herd.

His two wives and 10 children -- the youngest was then 3 -- were allowed one small portion of curdled goat's milk daily when there was any.

"The youngest boy suffered the most," Kah remembered, but added that he is grateful that no one in his family died. "There was a family effort to survive," he said.

Today, Kah, 49, has an almost noncommittal, wait-and-see attitude toward a new government livestock development program that promises to commercialize his cattle production for the first time, raise his income potential by 40 percent and shield him from future droughts.

"This program may work out in the future, but right now I'm still hurting," Kah said.

By the end of the 1974 drought, hundreds of thousands of dead zebus formed a stretch of bleached bones through the West African Sahel zone running 2,600 miles east from Senegal to Chad in Central Africa. The Sahel forms a belt of semiarid shrubland savanna, 100 to 600 miles wide, that borders the southern edge of the Sahara Desert.

Thousands of Sahel farmers lost their entire herds, and their generally poor governments lost a sorely needed source of export revenues. The herders were left destitute and flocked into already crowded, overburdening cities seeking food. Many of them have remained, adding to the growing numbers of the cities' lower classes. Luckier herders like Kah pulled through the drought with small numbers of their once-large herds and stayed on their Sahel range.

With or without government assistance, Sahel herders today are trying to build their herds back up to predrought numbers both as a hedge against future droughts and to regain their moderate earnings. In Senegal, for example, herders average $200 in yearly income, or $100 less than the per capita average for the country.

Kah's efforts to rebuild his herd have been hampered severely by the small amount of rainfall since the drought ended, he said. The area where Kah lives, the region around the wellhead village of M'Bar Toubab, 90 miles east of the northeastern coastal city of Saint-Louis, has not had normal rainfall in 13 years.

Rainfall has remained below predrought amounts in numerous areas of the Sahel and has returned to normal in others.

Less rainfall has meant less grass for the cows, smaller amounts of milk, higher calf mortality and lower fertility and reproduction rates, Kah continued. In addition, the area around M'Bar Toubab's well, as with hundreds of similar areas around wells throughout the Sahel, has become a pocket of growing desert caused by overgrazing.

In the past, the Fulani herders around M'Bar Toubab could make seasonal migrations by taking their cattle north to the valley of the Senegal River for several months before the end of the nine-month dry season in June, allowing their lands to be replenished with the first showers of the rainy season. But irrigation projects built in the river valley since the end of the drought have put these grasslands under cultivation, ended the traditional migrations and forced the herders to overgraze their fragile grasslands year-round.

The end of their former nomadic migrations has led also to increased demand for wood as cooking fuel and denuding of the soil-preserving forest cover around the wells.

With his own herd suffering from high calf mortality, a shrinking amount of range on his homestead five miles east of M'Bar Toubab and the occasional but necessary sale of one of his cows, Kah has been able to rebuild his herd to 24 head from the 10 that survived the drought. He said he would have had at least 12 more head if the rains had returned to normal in the last seven years.

His small herd, he said, is only enough to give him and his family a minimum ration of milk.

"I need about 10 lactating cows just for my family's daily milk needs and about 50 more cows so we can sell milk" allowing the family to buy cereal grains such as millet and sorghum from area farmers, as well as clothes and other necessities, Koh said. "The 24 are just enough for us to live on, but there is not enough milk for anything else."

On June 1, Kah placed 16 of his cows in an $8 million project run jointly by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Senegalese government. The aim of the project is to get traditional herders like Kah into commercial production of cattle to supply Senegal's growing domestic consumption of beef and to raise herders' income enough to keep them from migrating to the cities to join the already large numbers of urban unemployed.

The program extends credit to the herders to buy feed supplements for each cow in the program and to pay for veterinary services for the calves. At the end of one year, the herders agree to sell to the Senegalese government all the male calves that were produced except for one they may keep for reproduction. They keep all the female calves.

The government pays as little as $110 up to a maximum of $166 for calves ranging in weight from 264 pounds up to the ideal weight of 396 pounds. Yearling calves sold on the traditional markets bring $27 to $39.

"We started feeding the cows with the feed in the first week in June," Kah said. "You could notice the difference right away, as the cows were so hungry before, they were eating their own excrement."

The milk production of the 16 cows, each of which has a calf, has gone up substantially as well, Kah added, raising the incomes of his two wives. Among the Fulani, women are the traditional sellers of milk.

Ibrahima Sory Gueye, the Senegalese director of the program, said Kah could end up earning $407 after the first year of the program, once he has paid off an accumulated debt of $300 for feed, medicine and veterinary services.

"You figure that about half of the calves are males and if Kah had sold them for the maximum of $39 he would have earned a maximum of $312," Gueye said. "With the program, he'll earn 40 percent more," and be able to keep the females for increased annual production.

The government takes the male calves it buys and fattens them for two additional years before marketing them for as much as $350 each.

For the financially strapped Senegalese government, the program is expected to bring the country to self-sufficiency in beef consumption and end the annual loss of $5 million in precious foreign exchange for meat imports. Senegal's yearly beef deficit is 2,600 tons and growing as its population increases at the rate of 3 percent a year.

An AID audit earlier this year reported "potentially" millions of dollars lost in waste and misuse of AID funds provided to sub-Saharan countries. The auditors said a $4.6 million cereal production project in Senegal had not increased the grain production.

The accounting and managerial abilities of the sub-Saharan countries are inadequate for the level of funds provided, the report said. Lannon Walker, assistant secretary of state for Africa, said in June the sub-Saharan program is politically important because of "Libyan adventurism" in the region.

At present, 15,000 head of cattle are in the AID-funded project and a counterpart program financed by the European Development Fund. To make up for Senegal's meat deficit, Gueye said he would need 40,000 head of cattle in the program.

"The return of a drought like the last one could present a setback for us, but we intend to continue to feed all the cattle enrolled in the program through any future drought," Gueye said.

Gueye added that the herders enrolled in the project will receive increasing amounts of earnings as the number of cows increases.

"We haven't yet figured out what their maximum earnings will be, but they will be much greater than what they are earning today," he said. "If our rate of population growth and the annual rate of cattle increase remain constant, we could reach self-sufficiency in beef by the year 1990."