With her family's stocks of millet long gone, Rachida Abdou tied her shrunken baby girl to her back and grabbed the emaciated hand of her 7-year-old son. Together, they set out in search of food, or for somebody who might help.

On the fifth day of their journey, they stumbled into Maradi, a trading center. There, Abdou recounted, they saw something that they hadn't encountered in a very long time: food. There were sacks of rice, bags of peanuts and baskets of millet in the bustling markets. There was enough food -- here in the epicenter of a major hunger crisis -- to feed her family and thousands like it, if only they had the cash.

"What can you do?" said Abdou, a tall woman of about 30 with dark, piercing eyes. She sounded frustrated, and a bit desperate. "The price of millet is very high."

As streams of women like Abdou arrive here, with breasts shriveled from malnourishment and skeletal babies strapped to their backs, they are discovering some unexpected reasons for the hunger crisis in Niger:

It is the result not only of food shortages but a host of other problems, including vendor profiteering, a government policy shift toward a free market, and a decline in the traditional culture of generosity that once helped communities in Niger survive cyclical periods of scarcity.

In a country adopting free market policies, the suffering caused by a poor harvest has been dramatically compounded by a surge in food prices and, many people here suspect, profiteering by a burgeoning community of traders, who in recent years have been freed from government price controls and other mechanisms that once balanced market forces.

At the same time, Nigeriens said, the tradition of sharing in their society is giving way to sharper, more selfish attitudes as Niger, one of the world's poorest countries, reaches for a more materialistic, Westernized future. That is especially true here, along the southern border with Nigeria, where an aggressive entrepreneurial culture has created the economic powerhouse of West Africa.

"There are people who are making profit out of this whole situation," said Abdoulkader Mamane Idi, a local radio journalist. "The link of brotherhood and solidarity has been broken."

A U.N. report found that prices in markets in Niger have shot up sharply because of profiteering, said James Morris, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, speaking from San Francisco. Some traders, he said, have raised prices in anticipation of the arrival of aid groups, which often buy food locally to save on transport costs.

In the mostly Muslim nation, where the wealthy have a religious duty to set aside a portion of their income for the poor, some Islamic leaders said fewer and fewer are bothering to do so.

"There is nothing like generosity now," said Malan Hassane, the imam of a neighborhood mosque. "Selfishness is gaining ground." He maintained that humanitarian groups would not need to intervene if people here were more willing to feed one another.

The United Nations is attempting to provide food to 2.7 million people in Niger. Most serious cases already have come to Maradi, a city of 70,000 where Doctors Without Borders, an international aid group, has been treating hundreds of children a day. Admissions for serious malnutrition at the clinic, officials there said, are double the normal rate.

Niger, a landlocked nation of 11.7 million, suffers through hunger crises about once every decade. The sandy soil holds water poorly, and only one acre in 30 is considered arable. A short rainy season can be disastrous for a country of subsistence farmers, and last year, farmers faced both a lack of rain and an infestation of locusts.

Yet this time, unlike during earlier food shortages, the market economy has remained vibrant.

Hundreds of miles from a major port, trading routes are well established, coming from the capital, Niamey, in the west and from Nigeria in the south. Food peddlers in Maradi's central markets say they would have no trouble ordering more from their suppliers.

"There's plenty," said Hamissu Garba, 30, a trader with a round face and a belly that bulged beneath his shirt. Garba's shop is stocked with luxuries such as instant coffee and 110-pound bags of rice, once priced at $20 and now selling for $35.

Millet and other commodities have doubled or even tripled in price.

Maradi hums with commercial prosperity. In ramshackle wooden stalls, there are televisions and cell phones, as well as shoes and shirts. Larger shops are piled with sacks of grain, which men buy in bulk and then sell by the bowl. Hordes of healthy-looking goats parade down dirt streets, prodded by herders.

But traders in Maradi deny profiting on the suffering of their countrymen, saying they are only passing along the higher costs charged by out-of-town suppliers. They said the crisis has actually hurt business because people can't afford the prices.

"It's very, very expensive, more than what one would think," Garba said. "Nobody is making a profit out of it."

"People are coming, but it's difficult," said another trader, Sadissa Issaka, 28. He said that he would welcome the government purchase of his stocks to subsidize the market but that he couldn't afford to donate food. "That's people's property. They can't just give it away," he said. "It's the duty of the government to do so, but unfortunately it has not."

A government spokesman, Ben Omar Mohamed, said from Niamey that the government has provided 42,000 tons of free and subsidized food to ease hunger. In Maradi, however, there is little evidence of official food distribution.

Longer-term economic policies may be working against a solution, according to some observers. In 1993, the government scrapped price controls at the urging of the World Bank and stopped heavy-handed interventions in grain markets by an import-export agency.

Mohamed acknowledged that prices have risen sharply but said the government was attempting to address the problem. "Absolutely, traders are making money because the demand is very high," he said. "We let the market determine the price."

Abdou said she has experienced the bitter effects of change in both Niger's economic forces and traditional culture.

Before she left her village, she sold all three of her dresses for a total of $6. Wearing a borrowed dress, she spent $2 on bus fare for the first leg of the journey, $2 to have her son examined at a clinic and $2 for six pounds of millet that once would have cost four times less.

After that was gone, Abdou said, she and her children survived on the few morsels they could beg from passersby on the journey. Her son continued to waste away, stumbling and often falling. As the desperate family walked along the streets of Maradi on Wednesday, few rose to help.

Rachida Abdou and her two children traveled for five days mostly on foot to get to a town with food, though they didn't have the money to buy anything once they got there.A merchant sells food at a market in the city of Maradi, where many people suspect profiteering by a burgeoning community of traders.