‘One HEART’ Addressing the High Rate Maternal and Infant Mortality - Tibet’s Nomadic Population

Guest Post by Phil Borges /


< editor’s note: it is with great pleasure that we get to share with you this guest post from Phil Borges, Microsoft Icon of Imaging, who is currently working on a project in Tibet with One HEART. We hope to hear more from Phil at later dates about this project. All images courtesy of and copyright 2009 Phil Borges. >




I’ve come to Tibet to see the work of the NGO ‘One HEART’ which has been addressing the high rate maternal and infant mortality-- especially among Tibet’s nomadic population. It was estimated that three women would die for every 100 births and one in ten infants would not survive their first year of life. In the ten years that One Heart has been working here the death rates have dropped dramatically. In fact last year for the first time there were no maternal deaths in the two counties they have been working in.

Jinzhu Road

Entering Lhasa from the airport on Jinzhu road. This six lane highway was just built in 2003. Jinzhu is a Tibetan word meaning liberation.


I first flew to Lhasa 15 years ago on a 737 from Katmandu that was nearly empty. Today I arrived on an Airbus 330 from Beijing that is packed!! Lhasa itself is unrecognizable to me. What I remember as a rough two lane road thru town that hosted an occasional vehicle is now six lanes full of taxis, bicycle taxis, SUV’s, trucks and buses. Other than the Portola that looms above the town I hardly recognize any of the recently remodeled or new buildings. It’s amazing to me that so much has changed so fast.


July 5


Arlene Samen the Executive Director and founder of the Salt Lake City based One Heart has been in meetings for the last several days in Beijing and here in Lhasa attempting to get One Heart’s permit to work in China renewed. The permit that expired in February has left her Tibetan staff of eight unable to continue their very successful work. We are all hoping the permit will be granted soon.


July 6


I’m still in Lhasa waiting on word about the permit. Everyone here is complaining about the heat. Evidently this year is the hottest and driest on record.


Tibetans praying and prostrating in front of the Jokhang Temple.


It’s a special Lama’s birthday today and there are droves of Tibetans prostrating in front of the Portola and Jokhang Temple and walking clockwise around both structures. We have just got word of the riot occurring in Xinjiang Province. It’s too bad. This kind of violence rarely accomplishes anything for anyone.


Woman praying in front of the Portola.


Crowds walking clockwise around the Jokhang and spinning the prayer wheels that surround the huge structure.


July 7



Prayer flags at Lake Namtso.


Today the staff of One Heart and I drove out to some of the Nomad camps around Lake Namtso. During the entire five hour drive the Tibetans were either singing—they all have exceptional voices—or laughing, often uncontrollably. They didn’t want to embarrass me by translating the mostly off color jokes. The only thing embarrassing to me is I can’t sing. They don’t understand it.


One Heart’s Tibetan Staff at Lake Namtso.


The lake at 15,000 feet is the highest salt water lake in the world. Coming from sea level a few days ago, my body has not yet acclimatized—headaches, insomnia and a lot of huffing as I climb up to 17,000 to get good views of the lake. It’s amazing what a polarizing filter does to a sky at 16,000 feet.


Family doing wash in the salty water of Lake Namtso.


Women cover their face with scarves to protect their faces from the intense sun rays at 15,500 feet.


Nomad Family near Lake Namtso.


Girl in family.


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. I can’t even imagine someone giving birth outside, in the winter, at 15,000 feet. No wonder they have had one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates ever recorded.


Yak Hair tent with solar panel.


Although it looks like rain would come right thru the open weave of the Yak hair tent the natural oil on the hair lets these tents breathe yet be very waterproof.


One Heart has addressed these beliefs by training local nomadic women to be midwives and simply by providing a plastic sheet to contain the ‘spiritual blood pollutants’ that can be taken out of the tent after the birth.


Yak herder. I’ve been using the TTL Pocket Wizard with my Canon Mark III 1Ds . It is such a delight to be able to use wireless TTL in bright sunlight!!




Phil Borges

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