Bags with Purpose A Story Worth Hearing

Features Issue 179 Oct, 2016
Text by Evangeline Neve / Photo: ECS Media


An interview with Dr. Milan Maharjan, the founder of Ear Care Nepal, a charity which helps in the redressal of a pressing health issue that pervades the country.

Recently I was invited to attend the launch of a new line of eco-friendly handbags; it was a fun event and I was impressed with the quality, fresh designs and stylishness of the bags displayed. But the event wasn’t just about a fashion accessory—all the profits from the sales were for Ear Care Nepal, an organization that works for the prevention of deafness and the promotion and conservation of hearing in Nepal. Fascinated, I wanted to know more, and Dr. Milan Maharjan, the founder and driving force behind the project, took time out of her busy schedule to meet and tell me more. 

Question: What is your professional background?
Dr Milan Maharjan: I am an ENT Surgeon, and I was Assistant Professor at the Kathmandu Medical College. Even when I was working, I was always doing volunteer work when I could, and I wanted to do it fulltime. 

Q: What inspired you to start Ear Care Nepal?
A: Nepal has among the highest prevalence of deafness in South-East Asia. There are a lot of eye hospitals – it is a good example of progress and quality health care in the country. But there are only 126 ENT surgeons registered in Nepal, and many of those are now retired. There is not enough manpower to address the need. 

Q: Is hearing loss a big problem in Nepal? I wasn’t aware of this before.
A: In 1991, the last national survey reported that 16.6 % of the population has hearing loss, and 50% of that number are school age children. Amongst those with hearing loss, more than 50% of the cases are preventable. It’s only less than 1% that are deaf and mute and can’t be treated. In September 2013 I started Ear Care Nepal, and now I do it fulltime. I’m a volunteer, I receive no pay from it, but keep a small clinic in Patan in the evenings to cover my expenses. 

Q: What does Ear Care Nepal do?
A: We started with two programmes:
A screening programme at government schools, coordinating with the Lalitpur District Education Office. This programme covers children ages five to sixteen. It’s a very good method of finding those who need help, as the children who attend government schools are generally from poorer families, so it is an automatic filter; those who attend these schools are needy. There are 196 government schools in Lalitpur alone.
The second place we do screening is at monastic schools – Buddhist monasteries and nunneries: again, we target the young monks and nuns who are studying there. 
Over 20,000 children have been screened for hearing problems so far through these programs, and 216 children have been operated on to date, all for free. In addition to screening, we also produce educational booklets on primary ear care, and illustrated posters on this topic as well. If the schools have electricity—most of them don’t—we also show a PowerPoint presentation. We try to educate the children, teachers and parents. Prevention is very important—most children pick their ears with whatever they have, and people pour warm oil into their ears for ear problems, but now it is often contaminated and causes infections. Some even put urine, squeezed roses or squeezed tobacco inside their ears, all sorts of unusual and potentially dangerous things. So awareness and education are really important. 
And all the funds for these programmes and surgeries have been from personal contributions—with the exception of a small Rotary Club grant—the work has all been supported by individuals, friends, family; I’m very proud of that. 
Ear surgeries are very expensive—even at government hospitals they can cost up to Rs. 25,000. Some places say they are “free” but there are many hidden costs, and it is often difficult for those who really need it to afford it. 
Nidan Hospital has been very kind to us, allowing us to do our surgeries here at a very subsidized rate, and Ani Choying Dolma’s Arogya Foundation contributes the lab costs for the children who need it. Some friends who are also ENT surgeons volunteer their time, but most of it I do myself. 

Q: Why bags?
A: It hasn’t been easy with fundraising, paying our small staff (we can’t afford to pay doctors). We do have an ambulance donated by the government of India, and we have to pay a salary to the driver, of course. A businessman from the US who made handbags happened to be at the Rotary Club the day I went there to give a talk; at first the idea was to give training and open a small factory to make the bags, but we couldn’t afford that.
Sushmita Malla, from Yala Handicrafts, designed the bags—not from her company, but as a volunteer, herself, to help. She has created a brand for these bags called Iyarkai. We will continue to create new designs, not repeat the current ones. 

Q: You use a lot of unusual fabrics – how did you decide to do this?
A: We wanted to make a bag that was unique and trendy, and made of natural fibres. We used hemp, banana, nettle, and also old tyre parts. No where else uses this combination. We do not use any leather or animal products, and the cotton is hand loomed. We thought that instead of wasting what is already available, to use the inner tubes from tyres, instead of leather. Some of our bags even still have the tyre patches on them, which is part of telling the story of where they came from. 
Everything is handmade, not mass produced. We make sure that we produce each bag carefully, with lots of attention. We want people to buy it because it’s good quality, made by Nepalis. In fact, except for the zippers—we could not find quality ones made here—each part of the bag is locally made by local artisans. But we didn’t want the cause to be the primary cause—both are important. A good design, good material, for a good cause. And 100% of the profit goes to Ear Care Nepal. 

Q: Anything else?
A: There have been lots of sacrifices, personally and professionally. I come from a Buddhist family and our Rinpoche told me once, “Don’t just be a volunteer, be a professional.” I’ve tried to do that. 
We keep expenses low—Nidan Hospital has also provided the use of our small office space for free, for example—and work with limited money, but we have to grow. There is a real need.
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I was personally impressed after my interaction with Dr. Milan Maharjan and her staff—their professionalism and also the passion for what they feel called to do shine through clearly. It was also refreshing to see such clarity, transparency and focus in a social organization. They’re not trying to save the whole world, but just concentrate on the needs they see in front of them and know best how to meet. It’s a simple idea, but it works. And I’ve always had a soft spot for social causes that also aim for sustainability—it’s the best of both worlds, I think. 
And let’s not forget the bags—while it’s amazing that they are supporting a good cause, they are also quite simply very fine bags with careful, quality workmanship and a beautiful use of local materials. 

You can find more information about Ear Care Nepal, as well as how to get an awesome bag of your own (with free delivery anywhere in the Kathmandu Valley!) at the below contact points:
Or call: 9813185403