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Mas Por Ellos

Álvaro Pérez-Pla had a life really similar to the majority of medium class youths of his age. He had no worries, many social events, liked to smoke weed with friends and was going to university almost for social imposition.

At 20 years old, he decided to follow an old dream: volunteer in Africa.

After a few weeks working for a NGO in Kenya, he finds out that the money from donations were being diverged. When he questioned the owner of the organisation about it, his life were threatened and he ends up going back to Spain.

The experience was very shocking and he couldn’t adapt to his old style of life any longer. So, Álvaro meets with a few friends to found the NGO Más Por Ellos and after managing to raise some funds to get going with a few projects, he moved with all his stuff to the African continent, where he lives up to date.

At 27 years old now, Álvaro manages Más Por Ellos and its many social works in Kenya (and most recently in Zambia too), from operating in the second biggest slum in Africa, Kibera, at the Kenyan capital, up to an orphanage which attends 20 children directly at the outskirts of the country.

Everybody from Más Por Ellos, which include people in Kenya, Spain and volunteers from all over the world, are helping to change a few people reality who unfortunately have not opportunities. For further information, access their website. Also, you can read our involvement with MPE at our older post checking here.

Mas Por Ellos

Monday Feelings: What have inspired you to leave Spain and move to Kenya? Was there any personal reason?

AP: The first time I went to Kenya I was 20 and was in the middle of my university studies. I was “studying business”, and I paraphrase this because I wasn’t actually doing anything. All I did was party and smoke weed with friends.

I always had in mind that I would love to travel around Africa but wasn´t able to, due to my shortage in funds. I got my things together and worked a bit to fulfil a big time dream. When I looked on the map and researched a bit, Kenya seemed to be the perfect place to start off. Plans didn´t go as I expected and after 4 months I had to return as my life was being threatened.

The experience I lived created a feeling inside of me, which I´m sure many have felt. When I went back to Spain I tried different jobs but I wasn’t able to look away. I wanted to make a difference in the world no matter how small it was. I wanted to show the world that if we want a better world we cannot just wait for miracles to happen, we must act and be consequent with our thoughts.

MF: Why did you decide to open a NGO in Kenya and not in Spain?

AP: Any person that is dedicated to the NGO sector is doing so because they had a calling. There are infinite things that can be changed to create a better world but one must follow what he/she is most passionate about in order to fight for it.

Even though in Spain some people live in bad conditions, I dare anyone to compare those bad conditions to how people are living in Kenya. I don´t believe that because I was born in Spain I need to help my own country. I believe we are people of the world and no matter the place you were born, it is our responsibility to fight for those who are worst off and don´t have any chances. Besides all of this, I was not only thinking on what impact we could make on the people we were going to help but also on the impact that we could make on those people who would look at what we were doing. Aid in Africa is much more visual so it is much easier to prove the point. We are committed on this matter too.

MF: If you had not volunteered before (when you first volunteered in Kenya), do you think you would have the same future?

AP: Definitely not. It is an experience that I think everyone should have because no one would be able to continue with their lives as if nothing had changed. We only know one world until we try to understand how other people live. I think that volunteering is the perfect way of doing it.

MF: What are the main difficulties of working in a different culture?

AP: There are some obvious difficulties like language barriers or the difference in food habits. I like to have the chance of taking advantage of difficult situations. Of course one needs to get to understand the culture but once that is achieved then you have the advantage of being fluent in two ways of behaviour and of understanding things. When you realize this, it is when you have an advantage. You make the best of any situation you encounter.

MF: How is the receptiveness from people towards a foreigner in Kenya? Do you think it would be easier if you were Kenyan?

AP: Kenyan people are very welcoming to foreigners if you leave the “mzungu” cliché apart (everyone who doesn’t have black skin is called “mzungu” in Kenya, an old reference to the British colonizers). They are used to getting tourists all year round and usually appreciate the presence of “white” people. Some Kenyan people are very welcoming because they think they can get something form you, others because they think that you are more highly educated than them… whatever the reason is, I think it would have been harder if I was a Kenyan. But I don’t really have an objective view on the matter because I have been working with a local person hand in hand to achieve every goal that we have made.

Mas Por Ellos

With Erik Kyalo – The founders of Mas Por Ellos and Lisha Mtoto

MF: What are the biggest challenges of your work? And beyond, more specific in Kenya?

AP: The biggest challenge has been working with over a hundred volunteers that all want to come and make a big change in a very short time. Managing their feelings, their skills and their efforts is very difficult as only when you are actually getting to work well with someone is when you are taking them back to the airport (many volunteers work for a short-term, sometimes only a month). It is a challenge but at the same time it is one of the things that we appreciate most as it gives us the chance of not only learning from many people but also gives us hope that our message will get passed on, changing many minds and hopefully creating a big change. It is only through volunteers that our purpose can actually be achieved.

MF: Do you believe European NGOs working in Africa can exacerbate issues such as racism? 

AP: I think it certainly can but it is in the hands of the NGOs to stop creating a distorted image of “white” people. Many NGOs are going to Sub-Saharan Africa with the only idea of helping and not engaging with the community. They give help without previous study of the situation and state that they have invested millions of dollars in Aid, only caring about figures. This makes Africans believe that foreigners can waste resources and that the relationships are based on convenience. So they also try to gain whatever they can from relating with “white” people, which creates a different type of racism than the one we know.

MF: How to escape from the stereotype of “white man teaches, black man learns”? 

AP: The first thing to do is to understand that you are not going to solve a problem that you don´t understand. First you have to learn from black men and get to understand the essence of the problem. Second, you have to get the black people involved in solving the problem. By doing so you are making a sustainable approach to the problem solving. If white people come and try to solve a problem the chances of the project failing are very high. Everyone needs to feel part of the change for that change to actually have an effect on him/her. If it is not done this way, people don´t really care if the project fails. On the other hand, if they have put their capacities for a project they will also make a bigger effort for it to actually succeed.

MF: How do you see yourself in 10 years from now?

AP: Hopefully I will have several kids (in the orphanage) and will be coming year after year to see how the projects evolve. The idea of our NGO is not to create a dependency on our work but to create a sustainable change, creating projects that start and endure due to the efforts of African people. If we haven´t been able to hand over all of our projects to African people it would mean that we have done things wrong and that we have failed. I like to think that it won´t be the case.

MF: How do you see Kenya in 10 years from now? And the children of Tala (city on the countryside of Kenya where the orphanage is based) in 10 years from now?

AP: Kenya is one of the fastest growing economies of the continent and the technological hub of the region. The perspectives for the following 10 years could not be better, with the completion of a fast-rail line connecting the neighbouring countries with the port of Mombasa and the recent findings of petrol on the Northern Province being exploited. Kenya will be one of the leading countries in what is to be a big time change in terms of development.

The children in Tala will all be in high school or university and definitely living outside the orphanage. The idea is that they become self-sufficient and for that to happen they have to adapt to the social environment of Kenya. The first change that will occur in their lives is to go to a boarding school during their high school. This will put them in the same level as other children from their age. When they complete their secondary education, some will hopefully well perform and will be able to access university. In any case, we will be keeping in touch with them and helping them in every aspect that we can.

Mas Por Ellos

MF: Is this humanitarian work temporary or it will be your job for life?

AP: It will be something in which I will be involved all of my life but not my job for life. I have other dreams that I want to fulfil, like having a family. I don´t want to be unfair and I think it is incompatible to dedicate your life for others and to your family. I believe that there is time for everything in life and that one has to do whatever makes him the happiest to create a positive change in the ones around you. For now, this is what makes me the happiest but it is very sacrificing.

MF: And how do you plan to pass the job on to another person considering your importance as the founder?

AP: I will always be involved in the project and participating on decision-making. But many of the tasks that I had to do at the beginning I don´t have to do now.

We have hired nine Kenyan people who are running many of the projects that we have going on. We still need to hire more people to give it a solid structure that will enable us to increase our help. But the idea is to plan ahead and not involve ourselves in projects that we are not able to sustain with the structure that we have.

MF: What have you learned in these past 3 years? And what have you taught?

AP: What haven’t I learned in these past 3 years!

I have done a “Masters in life”, as some friends say. Now, I know about architecture, construction, farming, animal keeping, cooperatives, communication, organization of events, excel, managing people, economics… I have learned more over the past three years than during my whole life.

I don´t really know what I have taught. I want to believe that more than teaching anything, I have inspired people to pursue their dreams.

MF: How/who is Álvaro before Más Por Ellos and how/who is Álvaro now?

AP: Before starting Más Por Ellos, Álvaro had no responsibilities, was very social and thought that he had everything in life. There was no inner world inside him and believed that the world he knew was all that was. Today Álvaro has a big responsibility and has little social life. He still likes to party with his friends, travelling or watching football but has decided to open up the horizons to learn much more of life in aspects that before were not on his perspectives. He likes his job and enjoys learning, so he doesn´t care about studying or staying up until late working. Before, this could never have happened, party life was above this.

MF: What is your message to the world today?

AP: There are different realities and different ways of living which are based on roots that are much healthier than the ones we are living in. There will come a time when we won´t need to see that someone has to lose for others to win. It is time for humanity, now that information is in the palm of our hands, to sacrifice part of their existence or belongings to make this happen now all over the world. A life is worth the meaning you give it. What better meaning can it have?

MF: What is Monday for you?

AP: I have completely lost perception of what day of the week it is, I work 7 days a week. It is a new beginning for most people and therefore it is a chance of making things right. Everyday should be as Monday because every day you should wake up with that motivation.