Yesterday I went to see the COPE Visitor-Centre in Vientiane. COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and it’s a local not-for-profit organization that provides access to orthotic/prosthetic devices and rehabilitation services for locals who require them – free of charge if they cannot afford to pay for them.
The exhibition has a special focus on UXO (unexploded ordnance) – the history but also the influence of UXO on modern lao life. During the Vietnam war (between 1969 and 1973), Laos became the most heavily bombed country on earth. More bombs were dropped on Laos than on Germany and Japan together during all of world war II! However, many of these bombs (up to 30%) did not explode. This still causes huge problems in everyday lao life and every year people still get injured or die as a cause of an UXO accident (e.g. by hitting a “bombie” accidently, or because they collect bomb scrap to make some money, or children play with bombies because they do not know it’s dangerous…). Since the health system in Lao is poor, many injured people never get proper medication or amputation – not to mention protheses.
The COPE visitor centre tells the stories of people affected (not only by UXO but also of people who are disabled because of other accidents or who have congenital disabilities) in an illustrative but simple way. The visitor is involved in many different ways and can even try to use special-designed wheelchairs or to walk with a prothesis. I was impressed by a collection of old hand-made protheses hanging from the roof – the prothesis injured people (or someone from their village) made by themselves until they got proper ones from COPE / the National Rehabilitation centre.
Instead of leaving the Centre with a miserable feeling of how bad everything is and how poor disabled people are, I left thinking that this is a great project which gives hope and a perspective for disabled people in Lao.
For me and my future work in Lao it was also interesting to see a very good example of an exhibition, since I will be involved in similar (but probably smaller) projects throughout the next year…