Silo India – Believe the Unbelievable

Friday 9th May 2014 – Launch of Silo India





Silo India is a social enterprise in Manur, Tamil Nadu set up to work with local communities, NGO’s and private companies to increase the life chances of those living in rural villages.


The website is evolving everyday, our presence on social media is increasing and we have started the first of many sport projects.  Its an exciting time for the organisation and community as Silo India commences work with an official launch and traditional martial art classes.

Community Event

Banner up, chairs set out, welcome drinks ready, all set, its 3.50pm.

The launch is due to start at 4pm.

4.15 no one here

4.30pm a few people

5pm a few more

Ok 5.30pm and we’re ready to start. Indian time at its very best!


First some welcome speeches;

Firstly a very warm welcome from Swathi Johnson, founder and managing director of Silo India.  Silo India has been two years in the planning so a great moment for Swathi to finally announce that Silo India is ready to commence its work in the community and receive international volunteers.

I then said a few words about my involvement in sport and how it had helped me as individual, not least of all leading me into my career and current employer, Sport Wales.
Although this week my involvement in sport has been much to the amusement of the locals.  I decided I should start running again so Mohan kindly offered to come with me as there’s no real safe route.  I think the phrase ‘all the gear and no idea’ is quite apt.  There’s me in shorts, dri-fit t-shirt, Nike running shoes and an ipod, there’s Mohan, bare foot in a Dhoti (traditional dress) and shirt.  2 months of inactivity and I was feeling it.  I was sweating buckets, Mohan hardly looked out of breath!  Which is a good job as he had to keep saying to the locals ‘running, running’ as they looked at us with great amusement going past.  Clearly he had to say this as we were going that slow it wasn’t that clear that we were running!
But if we’re going to get kids involved in sport then perhaps I need to lead by example.  Particularly as after 7 months of it being held in customs (for reasons still unknown!) the bag of equipment kindly donated by Sport Wales arrived today!  This will no doubt be a huge asset to the local community.

Then on to the Silabam instructor who talked passionately about this traditional martial art which is one of many cultural activities that is slowly being lost to Tamil Nadu.  He raved about the positive impact that this has had on his life not least of all maintaining his health, not many people can claim to have only suffered from a common cold during their lifetime!  Silo India want people from every community to have the opportunity to take part in this highly skilled, dynamic martial arts, you’ll see what I mean when you watch the videos at the end of this post.

Then on to our chief guest –  Professor Karunakaran – who is a retired professor specialising in English.

He spoke from the heart about how important it was to have organisations like Silo India working for the community.  He switched between Tamil and English so I was able to understand much of what he said. There’s no doubt that he will become a real advocate for Silo India but for me there were two key things that he spoke about that really stuck in my mind.

1.  That young people in India are not the leaders of tomorrow but the leaders today.  They need to be well educated, full of confidence and aspiration as it is these people that will really shape the future of the country.  I couldn’t have agreed with him more.  When I went to a womens college back in December I was struck then by the young womens drive for change, to have greater opportunities and challenge some of the conventions which perhaps stifle growth and development in this country.
This is a key aspect of Silo India’s work, a great focus will be placed on providing opportunities for young people from poor families in rural villages who currently receive less support and opportunity than their counterparts living in cities.

2.  The treatment of women in India and again particularly in the more rural parts of the country.  He simply said that for too long women had been treated as second class citizens, given no choice about their life and this had to change.  I wasn’t just pleasantly surprised by what he said but impressed with the level of commitment and honesty that he made this point.  I don’t know, but I can’t imagine there are that many men in India that would stand up in that situation and be so plain about it.
Womens empowerment is becoming more important here, more and more self-help groups are being established, women have better access to education and in the big metropolitan cities women really are challenging the status quo.  Which for a westerner is good to see.  Whilst people would argue that we haven’t quite achieved equality in the west what we do have is a huge amount of choice and freedom, something I think we often taken for granted until we’re in a situation where we have to curb some of this.
I’ve certainly had to make adjustments here, the clothes I wear (considering the heat), the things I say, the people I talk to and physical contact with people are all things that I’ve had to adjust.  On the whole its fine.  I respect the culture and values here so its no big deal but I never forget that I have the luxury to bend these rules if I want, to escape back to the west at anytime where simple things like having to be home by 9pm just wouldn’t apply.  But women here don’t have that choice to pick and choose when they want to ‘play by the rules’ and when they don’t and its for this reason that the womens empowerment project is so important as it really has the potential to transform peoples lives for the better.

So after the trials and tribulations of the last few weeks its great to finally say;

Silo India is up and running and ready to accept international volunteers to support this great cause.

Now its all about getting Silo India out there, known as a high quality volunteer and internship programme, but for this I need your help.


We need as much input from our potential customers as possible so please leave your comments and tell us:
What would you want from a volunteer experience and what would make you chose Silo India?
And of course if you know of any opportunities where we can market Silo India please get in touch.
If you would prefer your comments not to be public please send your views to

If you’re still not inspired take a look at these videos.

Live demonstration of Silabam by some local students.

 This was the basic moves!

 Pretty impressive hand eye coordination

 There’s no way you would want to get in the way of this!

A particular low point

So in a week that was supposed to be full of positives, the launch of Silo India, customs finally processing the sports equipment, its turned into week which has seriously got me questioning whether things here will ever really change. It certainly testing my resolve to be here and I think even my overly optimistic view is starting to diminish.

So before the launch it was a 3 day trip to Madurai, meeting contacts, doing some stuff on my blog and maybe even some time at a hotel swimming pool, however, this then happened!

Madurai rain

It hasn’t rained here for months and even though April and May are the hottest months its really unusual to get rain.  After a failed monsoon last year it seems this years has arrived early.
Being close to the equator it isn’t just rain either its tropical downpours and of course it has to happen just as I get off the bus!  So spent a soggy 20 minutes huddled under a make shift shelter, soaked through having a cup of tea with about 10 locals.
Rain eases off so go for lunch and then decide to walk up to the temple to pick up some stuff.  After an hours rain this is what the roads were like!
madurai floods

So having dried out slightly I now had to wade 20 minutes from the temple back to the bus stop.  I lost my flip flops numerous times, almost fell over in the floods and when cars helpfully came past they didn’t really slow down.  Instead it caused a wave which sent the water higher.  By the time I got to the bus I was like a drowned rat, much to the amusement of the locals.

By the time I got back into town later the flooding had completely gone, where the water had gone I don’t know because there’s no proper drainage system in place, no way of harvesting this water.  Tamil Nadu is experiencing a significant water problem, many homes in Madurai have been without running water for months and even when rain like this comes, most of it goes to waste because they haven’t got the proper infrastructure in place.  The rain continued on and off like this for 3 days.  A lot of rain, a lot of water but most of it now gone to waste.

Thursday morning and time to meet Tennis Alicante India.  A really proactive sports club set up in the heart of the city to provide training to talented youngsters with the potential to compete on the world stage.
The club have hundreds of ideas of how to get more kids (and adults) into sport and I hope over the coming months I can help them put some of their plans into action.  The discussion was back into my comfort zone as this is much the same role as I do at home, the huge difference is the challenges faced here.  Sadly corruption, people cheating each other, lies and a want to see someone/club fail are very much the norm here.  People want things to improve but they don’t want to be the ones to do it and if someone else is doing it they want to see them fail.  Conversely once an organisation shows success, everybody wants to be a part of it!
I’ve been impressed though by the steely determination of the club to make it a success and to avoid their involvement in anything underhand and after the meeting I was really full of optimism about the potential this club offered.

So back to Manur, back to my flat and this is what awaits me.

random bird nest

This is on the inside of the house.  I’m the only person that has keys and even though its been quite breezy I wouldn’t say its been that bad!  I just stood there totally baffled and bemused wondering how the heck and what the heck is that.  After a bit of discussion and removal of it we conclude that it must be a squirrel or rat nest.  Totally random.
Next morning and the mystery is resolved, I think, as I’m woken up to a tapping noise on the window. Look up and there’s a small bird tapping on the window frantically trying to get in.  This has continued for the last few days so think its safe to conclude that it was a bird nest.  Lesson learnt though, make sure all windows are shut before I go away for a few days.

What has since followed this week though makes these events definitely things that you can laugh and shrug off, its all part of the craziness here, becoming accustomed to expecting the unexpected but events since then have been far more difficult to shrug off.
Those that know me well, will know that I’m pretty laid back, things don’t really bother me and I’m probably overly optimistic.  But this week I feel tired, drained, angry, hurt and seriously questioning everything!

In the last few days I’ve received a call from the press to talk about an issue which I really didn’t want to get involved in, found out that some of my money has gone missing with accusations flying everywhere and on top of that I’ve had the same people ask me the same questions about what I’m doing here, like I’m going to give them information that they can use for their own advantage.

I’m not even sure how to explain all that has happened or even where to start.
Pretty much every week since the others flew back to the UK (on 5 April) someone or a number of people have tried to warn me about different people.  Told me to be careful working with them, told me not to say certain things and probably the most infuriating line which no one seems to be able to back up is ‘many people are watching you, you know’.  The skeptical side of me of thinks, yep I’m sure they are because they have this warped view that I’m a rich westerner that has landed in India with a bag full of money which if they speak to me in the right way I’m going to let them have access to!  Which bemuses me I have to say, as rather than make any money here its actually cost me thousands of pounds to be here!

I was starting to get pretty fed up of having to conceal the truth from people, watch what I say, watch what I do, who I do it with it etc etc.  It just isn’t how I am and certainly not in a work context.  Perhaps I am too honest with people, not afraid to have difficult conversations and very upfront about how I feel about stuff but I don’t want to change that.  So I started just being myself and working on the basis that people would either accept that or not.  I certainly felt better for it, at least if no one else was being I was being honest to myself and to everyone else; but perhaps that left me and leaves me in a position for people to try and take advantage of it?

Having spent the last 6 weeks trying to figure out who, if anyone I can actually trust,  what to believe, where to focus my time and energy I totally hit a low point today where I thought, do you know what, why am I here? why am I making such an effort to be up front with people?  To build trust when it seems that everyone here is entirely out for their own gains.  I wouldn’t say people have necessarily lied to me but they’ve certainly not told me stuff which would of been useful to know.  Perhaps there is an expectation that I am just supposed to understand the way things work here but with everyday I seem to know less and less.  My experience here so far is raising more questions than it is answering.
Someone recently said to me, you know, when someone says they’ll do something, whether its be somewhere at a certain time or undertake a task, it isn’t a commitment its a statement of intent.  Sadly its true, there are very few people that actually when they say they’re are going to do something actually go ahead and do it. Perhaps that’s why everything here operates on ‘Indian time’?

There’s no denying that being here this time has been tough.  I totally stand out in the crowd, white female, short boyish hair style, western clothing but it isn’t that that makes it hard.  Its trying to work out what people want from you, do they just want information? Do they just want to parade you around as the token white person because it increases their status?  Or do they genuinely want your input and value your contribution?  It is today that I’ve felt being here totally on my own, no one else close by from the same culture to sound out if I think I’m being a bit paranoid, to help me understand the culture that I’ve found really tough.  Its been a particularly bad day and perhaps its the accumulation of what have been some quite challenging weeks.  Perhaps my body hasn’t quite recovered from the infection, I probably haven’t been looking after myself that well and I haven’t been sleeping because its been far too hot.  Perhaps its all that and a combination of events over the last 7 days that just all took their toll today.  I hope it is just that.

As everyone says, tomorrow is another day.  And you know what I could feel totally optimistic about everything again and perhaps, tomorrow could be the best day I’ve had here for a long time!  Who knows and perhaps it would be boring if we did know!







Health and Technology

My leg is perfectly ok now.  Swelling reduced by at least 95%, infection completely gone and pretty much full range of movement back.  So a week on from leaving hospital and time to reflect on it all and also become reacquainted with Indian life!

I write this post having watched the first episode of a new BBC programme called “The birth of empire- The East India Company”.  Its been this programme that has really got me thinking about how peculiar my life must seem to many people both in India and in the UK and after all that has happened this month I’m starting to wonder if it is a bit odd too!

I have to say this programme was one of the most interesting programmes both about British history and India that I’ve watched.  If you haven’t seen it and you can access BBC iplayer click on the picture below.

The British interest in India started way back in 1700 with the establishment of what become one of the most successful and influential companies of all time ‘The East India Company’.  Young men full of fascination and curiosity about this country set sail with the hope of experiencing a true adventure and no doubt acquiring serious wealth through the trade of goods between the two countries.  These young men had no idea what they would find when they got there, no idea about the culture, the climate, the people, anything!  But what is apparent is that each of them that set foot on Indian soil quickly fell in love with this country.
And so the British love affair with India began.

Map of East India Company operationsHowever, this great adventure presented two major challenges.   Health and technology.
In 1700 medical knowledge was rudimentary and the British were completely unaccustomed to the challenges of living and working in such a hot climate.
The estimated average lifespan of a British person in India then was 2 monsoons (2 years)!!
Their other challenge was technology, communicating both with locals to secure business and trade, and communicating between the company head quarters (in London) and those based in India.

Thank goodness, despite these challenges, they did pursue it as it was the East India Company that completely changed what we eat today and started Britain’s obsession with tea and curry.  Let’s face it where would we be without a  curry and beer on a Saturday night?!
Although; Britains previous favourite meal, ‘Chicken Tikka Masala’ has been knocked off top place by Chinese food.  Which surprises me as I would of thought my sister alone would have kept it at number one who has an in-ability to order anything but chicken tikka masala every time she has Indian food.

It is these two challenges that really made me chuckle whilst I watched it as I couldn’t help but draw direct parallels between the challenges faced then and the challenges faced now.
Based on last weeks blog I don’t think I need to talk much about medical challenges.  All there is to say is that despite huge strides in medicine it seems that the British still can’t quite fully adapt to living in an equatorial climate!!

Technology on the other hand!! Perhaps it is the huge strides in technology and expectation that technology is instant, fast and effective that makes it more frustrating?  Perhaps its being in a situation where you really want to contact people?  Perhaps in a situation when you just need things to work?
Either way technology has been and continues to be the single most frustrating thing here!
Initially it was lack of access to 3G and WiFi that was sending me demented.  Mobile phones are cheap here, for 200 rupee a month you can have full access to 3G, so for things like whatsapp and email its perfect.  If 3G works!
Everywhere and I mean pretty much everywhere I’ve been in India I’ve had full mobile phone signal and 3G. Apart from where I now live in Manur, so keeping in contact with people has been pretty challenging!
WiFi is all you need for Skype but waiting over 2 weeks for WiFi to be connected in the house and constant powercuts has made this impossible.

Being in hospital for 4 days certainly took my mind off it.  Thankfully the connection to 3G worked so I could at least keep people updated on the health front.  But then it came to paying for my medical expenses! They didn’t accept cards in the hospital only cash which is fine.  Fine if your cards work!
My parents sent me a message to say that they had received two letters from the fraud department saying that my cards had been blocked because of unusual activity on my account.  Yes there has been because I’ve been trying for a week to make a payment through Western Union and despite calling the bank 3 times to explain this they blocked my card every time I tried to make the payment.
So I’m in hospital the day after the operation, I just want to pay and go home but instead I’ve got to call the bank and get them to unblock my cards!  Call the bank and get asked a ridiculous number of security questions.  The woman on the other end of the phone then really helpfully says “I’m sorry I need to terminate the call, you answered one of the questions wrong so I can’t continue”  What??????
I wasn’t feeling the best, tired, probably a little over emotional, annoyed that I was even having to make this call.  So just shouted back at her “right so what am I supposed to do?  I’m in India, in hospital, I have no money and you’ve blocked my cards!?”  “Sorry but you will have to call back in 5 minutes and try again”.

I call back a second time, get asked the same questions and answer them in exactly the same way and they let me through security!!! Quick explanation and cards are unblocked but I was so annoyed by this point I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut so went into a rant about what is the point in me letting you know I am in India if every time I use my cards you block them.  And why don’t you call me to ask, whats the point of having my Indian number if you continue to call my UK one.  They reckon they tried to call me 9 times but I had no missed calls!

Cash withdrawn, medical bill paid and back home to resume normal life……………..

However, my frustrations with technology continue.

I now have WIFI in the office and at home so the lack of 3G in Manur is really not an issue.  So time to sort out this western union payment!  Call the bank and they say that it isn’t them blocking the payment because they know now I am trying to pay it.  Ok, so try again.  All going well, get through payment page, asked for my password at visa secure, all ok, payment gone through.
Wow ok maybe it does work now.
30 minutes later email from western union, sorry your payment has been declined!  Call the bank again, no its definitely not us its western union, the payment isn’t even reaching us!  Right ok.
Call western union and speak to pretty much a robot that seem only able to say “I’m very sorry about that but you can still make a transfer at one of our agents”.  So there’s a free online service to transfer money from a UK account to an Indian account but every time I try and use it western union block the payment because of a “business decision” but can’t tell me anymore than that.  But they’ll happily let me pay to transfer the money through one of the their agents.  Oh course they will!!!
Have now given up with western union and transferred the money directly from my bank account.

Back to doing what I’m supposed to be doing here, working with Silo India to launch an international volunteer programme.  This week has been entirely about building the website to do just that!!

siloindia-1I’ve never built a website before so its a very steep learning curve but what makes it even more challenging is technology.  I can only work on the website between 9-12pm and again after 3pm as the government cut the power between 12-3pm, the hottest part of the day!  So no WiFi, no power to the laptop and no ceiling fans to keep cool!  Despite this I had made pretty good progress and even learnt about html coding.

I was quite proud to showcase the website on Saturday at the first Silo India team meeting and although the site has a long way to go I think everyone was quite pleased with progress.

Sunday day of rest, or at least doing my own thing.  Decide to make a Skype call.  WiFi works, high speed connection too so have a good 30 minutes talking.  Then what can only be described as India’a version of Ayia Napa starts up!

So there’s no chance of hearing the person on the other end of the call.  Fortune is on my side and the power goes, yes!!!
No music!!
Ah but no no WiFi so can’t call back.
And of course no 3G so can’t even message to say whats happening!

No great problem, I’ll get on with other things. Its about 9.30pm by this stage and the power is back, as is the music, so decide to have a shower.
No water!  Thats strange!
Quick call and Johnson comes around to sort it out.  9.58pm have water, so think right I’ll have a shower and try and drown out some of the ‘music’ by watching something online.
10pm power goes!
No lights, no power, no wifi!
I had to laugh as I was sat outside in the dark, wondering if it was also going to rain, no idea when the power was going to come back on and wondering why technology is so unreliable here.

11pm power back on but I really can’t be bothered by then so just go to sleep.

Monday and back to work to continue building the website.  Try to log in but nothing happening, try to load website but its just a blank screen!  Swathi calls the web guy, he has no idea what has happened but the whole website has disappeared! What??????

I’d spent hours changing things, re-writing content, formatting etc etc and you’re telling me its all gone?

We ended up having to go and see him but even then he couldn’t tell us what had happened.

Tuesday afternoon and the site has been restored but not with all the changes I’d made!  So it all needs to be done again.

Frustrations of website building aside, I think technology is finally on my side.  I’m coming to accept that the daily powercuts are going to happen and it just takes a lot longer to get things working.  To be honest I’m also not sure why I’m quite so bothered about having instant access as everyone here clearly operates on “Indian time”.  I can contact people at home either personal or business and be pretty sure to get a response within 24 hours.  Here, you’re lucky if you get a response at all!  There are few people that are the exception to this rule but emails/messages being ignored or eventually being replied to are all becoming a normal part of life here. And whilst I’m realising that technology is the one thing I can’t live without I’m also learning that perhaps I need to lower my expectations.  Or if nothing else just smile about it and accept thats how things work here.

Friday is the official launch of Silo India.  The website will be ready and I’ll be able to take a lot of photos and videos so next blog should be much more interesting!
But in the meantime I’m quietly laughing to myself as I think that 300 years on since the British first took an interest in India, I still face the same challenges as they did.  I’m also wondering if after you’ve read this you’ll be thinking why the heck are you out there?  Why would you choose to live there?  But I’ve come to realise that the only two things I need are: My health and technology!