José Antonio Martin Urrialde, physiotherapist, full professor at San Pablo CEU University and a volunteer for Viva Makeni!

“International cooperation makes you very sensitive to social problems that are not valued from the comfort of the first world”


Organized and jovial, José Antonio is not afraid of challenges. He has been a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the San Pablo CEU University since 2000, has a clinic in Madrid where he works as a physiotherapist specializing in the locomotor system, and directs the care services at the EDP Rock and Roll Madrid Marathon. As if that were not enough, he collaborates with Viva Makeni!, a non-profit association founded in 2018 whose objectives are to improve the dignity, education, health and quality of life of the inhabitants of the city of Makeni, in Sierra Leone.

His relationship with the NGO began with the university where he works, which was already collaborating with the University of Makeni on habitability issues. That was in 2015, when his colleagues invited him to visit the country. The poor health status in the area prompted him to think about health-related projects in search of “the professional autonomy of the country’s healthcare professionals, avoiding dependence on the cooperating country”. This led to the NGO’s healthcare promotion programs, in which physiotherapy is a fundamental part.

Viva Makeni! offers a postural correction program and a physiotherapy training program. What do they involve?
The physiotherapy program included the start-up and ongoing support given to the unique Physiotherapy School in Sierra Leone, located in the Tonkolili district, where several faculty members from San Pablo CEU University teach both online and face-to-face courses. The Postural Prevention course is included in the Health Summer Camps, in which about 200 children aged between 5 and 15 participate in recreational, sports and training activities designed to promote health. Postural prevention is one of the most important activities.

Why is physiotherapy important in Sierra Leone?
Physiotherapy is a fundamental tool in the promotion, maintenance and recovery of health in any part of the world, but in Sierra Leone it is particularly important due to the lack of professionals: there are just six physiotherapists in the whole country; and also because of the wide variety of acute and chronic conditions suffered by its inhabitants, caused by the after-effects of epidemics, the numerous traffic accidents and the frequent post-partum neurological injuries, an so on.

Postural prevention is so relevant because children often carry large baskets of goods from a very young age and we want to help protect them against future chronic injuries.

What does your work in the two programs consist of?
I pioneered the curriculum for the Physiotherapy School and helped get it approved by the educational authorities in Sierra Leone. I also teach two subjects. The school currently has 30 students who, when they finish their training, will be the first Sierra Leonean physiotherapists trained in their own country. A real challenge! As for the Health Summer Camps, I design the content and activities for the postural prevention workshops that are taught by the local monitors we train. I also support the work of Xavier Santos Heredero, head of the Plastic Surgery Program, in the postsurgical recovery of patients operated on at Holy Spirit Hospital in Makeni.

What surprised you most about Sierra Leone?
Until I had the opportunity to get to know it and understand its history and traditions, I thought of Sierra Leone as a country linked to war and Ebola. It is a country that struggles to achieve social welfare by balancing its enormous ethnic and cultural differences. The peaceful coexistence of two religions, Catholic and Muslim, with collaborative ties and joint social actions in the area of education, are a sign that I always highlight and applaud. It is an example of tolerance.

What does volunteering give you?
It is an exceptional way of helping others by offering them your own knowledge, skills and abilities and, above all, ensuring that those you help are not dependent on you, but are self-sufficient and able to build their own future. In fact, international cooperation is a school of life that enriches you, shapes you and makes you very sensitive to social problems that, sometimes, from the comfort of the first world, are not valued. The affection and smiles you receive from the locals are the key ingredients for commitment. But also when you come back and see the fruits of your labor.

Had you volunteered before joining Viva Makeni?
Yes, I had. My experience in international cooperation, implementing training programs for physiotherapists and health personnel, started in 1998 with projects in Cuba, Algeria, Gambia, Bolivia, Bangladesh.