Revisiting Sama Gaun

This article was published in Humaneity Magazine (Mar 2012 issue).

A Photo Essay by Stephen Freiheit, a Danish photographer

Eight years ago, Thomas Kurek and I met Lama Jigme at a nun´s monastery in the outskirts of Kathmandu. Jigme was born and raised side-by-side with renowned Buddhist meditation master Mingyur Rinpoche in Samagaun village. Also called Sama village, Samagaun village is located in Nubri valley, which is an isolated Nepali area in the Himalayan border of Tibet. It has a population of approximately 1000 villagers from 200 households.

Shortly after meeting Jigme, we started filming and interviewing him for our upcoming documentary on four Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Nepal (supported by the Danish Center for Culture and Development (DCCD) and Today's Youth Asia (TYA)). It will be aired on national TV channel Nepali NTV Plus. We were fascinated about his work of heading Samagaun Development Foundation, an initiative that promotes healthcare and education for his fellow villagers.

During our first interview, Jigme told us that he has six siblings. At subsequent interviews, we asked about his mother's physical condition, having given birth to seven children. To our astonishment, Jigme informed us that his mother had actually birthed 10 children, three of which had died in childbirth, a common occurrence in Samagaun. Infant mortality is high there -- 40% of the children die before the age of five from preventable diseases. Furthermore, a large number of women die due to relatively simple (in our standards) birth complications.
Another Visit
Last year, Kurek and I decided to again visit Samagaun. We walked for eight days from Kathmandu through the Himalayas with Jigme and a Malaysian physician. We brought 30 kg of herbal medicine donated by a Malaysian NGO. Rumors spread quickly along the way, that a doctor formed part of our group and queues of locals who needed a consultation for themselves or their children quickly formed. It was quite overwhelming to feel the great need for medical care in the area and it became obvious that the farther we got away from Kathmandu, the greater the need. From Sama village, the nearest hospital is in Gorkha, a five-to-seven-days-walk. Since our trip, Jigme has contributed to finding funds to establish a Health Clinic in Samagaun, offering hygiene courses to help the villagers with common physical problems such as colds, arthritis, malnutrition, vitamin deficiency, lack of hygiene and bacterial infections, as well as provide assistance during childbirth.

Sadly, the economy only allows the village to hire two nurses for two years, after which new funds to continue the work of the clinic must be found. Jigme's goal is to eventually help the village gain access to the Internet, which nobody in the village knows much about. Via Skype, it will be possible to set up live video consultations between villagers and a doctor in Kathmandu. However, this idea will take some time as the installation of the Internet is expensive and accessibility is difficult. On the journey to Sama village, we welcomed the fact that we didn't constantly have to deal with emails. In relation to the crucial benefits that Sama village will have by accessing the Internet, our concerns seemed very small.

During our trip, Mingyur Rinpoche's family had kindly made their house available to us and we decided to arrange for medical consultations in the morning in the courtyard. Within few days, 100 residents arrived there to meet with the doctor, who in many cases could not heal the sick villagers, but could only temporarily relieve their pain. At first sight of smoke rising from the chimney in the early hours of the morning, curious children's faces began to appear at the cracks between the doors to the courtyard.
A Village With Religious Ties
The Buddhist monastery in Samagaun is an important institution. The monastery holds meditative rituals and pujas, which are religious rituals performed by Buddhists as an offering to various deities, distinguished persons or special guests. The rituals can last for days, even weeks. During our stay, we particpated in such a ritual, meditating and chanting in the monastery. The songs sung during meditation are often many hundreds of years old and have been passed down orally through generations. It was a great honour to have the opportunity to participate and gave a unique insiht into a culture that has definitely not changed remarkably over the centuries.
The puja ended after nine days of meditation, which was traditionally marked by lama dancing and subsequent blessings and distribution of snacks and food as offerings. A large number of Samagaun villagers attended the ceremony, demostrating the strong role of religion in an old and traditional society like Samagaun. Jigme's father is head lama of the monastery and directs the pujas and the lama dancing. We had the opportunity to interview Jigme's father and his uncles. They have all lived very modest lives, closely associated with the monastery and radiate both life wisdom, as well as serenity. They are, as the older generation of Sama in general, open to improvement and innovation, and look upon Jigme's struggle for this isolated society with respect. When we got back to Kathmandu, we felt transformed and deeply inspired by the people in Sama village.
This March, we will pay another visit to Samagaun. Hopefully at that time the new Health Clinic will be nearly complete as it is expected to open in May. We will work with the village youths and gather their thoughts and ideas on what the future may bring and how the village can be developed. We will air the results during our fourth TV program on national Nepali NTV Plus.

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