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Once One HEART’s work was terminated there was nothing I could document other than the frantic two weeks Arlene Samen (Executive Director of One HEART) spent trying to get permission for her organization to continue its work.   After the decision to stop One HEART’s work in Tibet had been made, Arlene left for Nepal.   She is hoping to begin another maternal health program based in Kathmandu.   Her Tibetan staff’s reaction to the bad news was interesting.   I didn’t see them express any anger or utter one complaint.  While they sat around in stunned disbelief the most reactive words I heard from them were ‘This is difficult’ and ‘This is sad’.  

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The One HEART Staff in happier times.

Today I learned that Arlene has decided to donate all of the One HEART assets in Tibet to the Tibetan Staff in hopes that they will be able to continue their work.  They are currently looking for foundational support out of Hong Kong.  It’s great to see that they are not giving up!  I just hope they make it. 

After Arlene left I decided to stay and document some of the drokpa families (nomadic families) in the areas where One HEART was about to expand its work.   Since I couldn’t document One HEART’s work I decided to document the typical families they were working with.   I hired a guide and three yaks and took off on a five day trek into the beautiful high mountain valleys north of Lhasa.

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I watched nervously as Tenzin the Yak herder put my camera bags into a flimsy gunny sack and precariously roped it to the back of a Yak.

Yaks have three times more red blood cells than the average cow.  With its long hair and ability to survive in oxygen depleted air the yak thrives in the high altitudes where cows would perish.  Just as the buffalo was central to the life of Native Americans the yak is critical to the survival of the Tibetan nomads.  The milk is made into cheese, yogurt and butter which is used in butter lamps and the omnipresent butter tea.   The yak hair is woven into tents, blankets, bags and rope.

Yaks are great pack animals but are almost impossible to herd when they are alone.  So anytime you need to hire a yak for a trek you need at least two.  The typical price is about $6 per day per yak—the yak herder is free!

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I held my breath every time the Yak crossed a river or creek and prayed it wouldn’t decide to lie down to cool off.   I carry my equipment (Canon Mark III 1ds; Sony EX1 Video Camera; lights and sound equipment in two bags).

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As many of you know the focus of my personal photographic work over the past 5 years has been around the empowerment of women and girls—especially in the developing world.  This week there is a must read article in the NY Times Magazine by Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl Wu Dunn for anyone interested in this subject. 

The article states:  “There’s a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. That’s why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women. The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.”

I just returned from a heartbreaking trip to Tibet where I planned to continue my work on women’s issues.  I went to document the work of the NGO ‘One HEART’ which has been addressing the high rate maternal and infant mortality — especially among Tibet’s nomadic population.

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Tele who is 63 with his grandson Sonam Choedon. Sonam was born near Lake Namtso where One HEART hoped to start working this year. Like most Nomad children he was born only with the help of family members. Luckily the birth went without complications.

As in many parts of the world, indigenous people don’t get or seek medical help because of different cultural beliefs and misunderstandings.  Many Tibetan Nomads believe that in the critical moments after birth the infant is very susceptible to a ‘Hungry Ghost’ that can jump onto and occupy the newborn.   These ghosts that can be carried by any stranger are believed to make havoc in one’s life.   Needless to say a Nomad doesn’t want a doctor or midwife that they barely know attending the birth of their child.  They also believe that the blood of childbirth offends the spirits of the house.   Therefore many births take place in a cold and dirty stable away from the warm fire in their yak-hair tents. It’s no wonder that an estimated three women died for every 100 births and one in ten infants did not survive their first year of life.   

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Adu, 26 and her husband Tadro, 31 live at 16,000 feet where they raise yaks and goats. Since the Tibetan’s have never had a midwife tradition, both of their children were born at home without any prenatal, birthing, or postnatal care.

To address these cultural beliefs One Heart’s Tibetan staff trained local nomadic women to be midwives and provided a plastic sheet to contain the ‘spiritual blood pollutants’ that could be taken out of the tent after the birth.  The ten year old program has been extremely successful.  Last year there were no maternal deaths in the two counties they worked in.   Unfortunately, One HEART’s contract to continue their work was not renewed.  

It is often said when a mother dies the family dies—students drop out of school to help take care of younger siblings, and fathers strain under the added workload.  It is such a shame that a program that was so successful at saving families from the devastating effects of losing a mother had to end.

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Nomadic life in Tibet is changing fast.  Solar panels, cell phones and satellite radios are starting to appear.  The cell phone is becoming an important tool in the campaign to reduce maternal mortality.

Thank you for visiting my blog! I welcome your comments and look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Phil Borges

PS: If you didn’t have a chance to read my previous blog postings from Tibet they can be found here:

Microsoft Pro Photo Blog – Post 1 of 2

Microsoft Pro Photo Blog – Post 2 of 2