Project TOTO: the #secretmission has begun!

[Update 28 May 2008: This post began as an announcement of my Project TOTO trip to Tanzania. But a comment by Archie Law triggered a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion about whether topless garden gnome Gnaomi is a harmless presence in my videos or degrading to women. I responded on 27 May in Look, about that damn topless gnome… Do feel free to continue the conversation.]

Photograph of giraffe and Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania, by Fanny Schertzer

If you’ve been following my Twitter stream or read a certain recent blog post, you’ll know that a SEKRIT mission was being plotted. Tonight I can reveal… Project TOTO.

Late this afternoon I received my first briefing note, and it’s reproduced in full over the jump. However in summary, it appears that I’m going to Tanzania on behalf of ActionAid Australia (from 1 June, that’s the new name of Austcare) to report on what I see, and to establish a blog outpost in the local community.

Amongst other things, I’ll be posting daily video diaries. Here’s the first.

(If the video doesn’t work, try directly at Viddler.)

As you see, I’m only just starting to get my head around this. I’ve never been to Africa, and certainly not to the kinds of places that ActionAid operates. That’s challenging enough — except that I also have to set up a training program for people I’ve never met from a culture I’ve never encountered.

And deliver “media product” from locations where… well, where Internet bandwidth might not be as plentiful as I’m used to.

My head is exploding.

OK, here’s the briefing I received…and there’s more comment from me at the end.

19 May 2009

My Dear Stilgherrian,

As you are aware, over the last few weeks you have been drawn into #SECRETMISSION.

To recap, you have already agreed:

  1. To be sent to an undisclosed African country;
  2. To report on what you find there;
  3. To undertake a technology challenge in that country.

Through the use of technology and social networks, you will enable a voice to be heard from this remote destination on an ongoing basis.

I can now confirm this mission is ACTIVE and provide you with further details of your task.

#SECRETMISSION active name is “The Overseas Training Operation” #TOTO.

Your Brief

Client: ActionAid Australia.
Mission: Use every available channel open to you in the fight to end poverty and injustice.
Location: United Republic of Tanzania.
Details: To meet this challenge, you must:

  1. Conduct comprehensive physical and psychological preparation.
  2. Undertake full briefings to gain a deep understanding of the political, economic and social realities of the target country.
  3. Travel to the target country and build rapport with the locals.
  4. Report freely on what you find utilising technology in remote terrain. Be warned you may have to face many psychological challenges, be affronted by injustice, social deprivation and cultural diversity you have never experienced in your life.
  5. Establish a blog outpost in the local community, complete with all required technology.
  6. Train the local community in best-practice blogging to ensure that long after you leave, their voices will continue to be heard loud and clear.

Your mentor for this mission will be Archie Law, CEO, ActionAid Australia. Keep him close to you, you will need his help.

Further details of this mission will be made available to you as we progress.

Good Luck my friend, I will be back in touch with further instructions soon.

Fi Bendall
+61 2 9948 0007
+61 (0) 431 032 426
Twitter: FiBendall
Sykpe: FiBendall

There will be daily posts as we plan the mission, and I’ll be providing plenty of material from the field — words, pictures, videos.

This all takes place very, very soon. Although the specific dates haven’t been set yet, Austcare becomes ActionAid Australia on 1 June, and obviously this project is part of the “new” organisation’s launch — even though Austcare has been around since 1967.

There’s lots of ways you can follow my journey…

… although calling it my “journey” inspired a dear friend to pronounce that sending me on this mission is “Australian Idol meets South Park.” Well screw you, Mark!


I see what you mean.


  • Follow me on Twitter. I’ll tag everything related to this project with the hashtag #toto.
  • Follow this blog. There’s a specific RSS feed for category “Project TOTO”. [Update Wednesday 20 May, 8.05am: If you subscribed to this RSS feed before now, you’ll actually have subscribed to the “Arts” category. That’ll teach me to test things at night. I’m a morning person! It’s working now.]
  • And more methods will come soon… like Flickr.

We’re also looking for sponsors who can help us out with equipment or services, and later up I’ll probably pass the hat for donations to ActionAid Australia and ask how you can help build community support. But all in good time. For now, um, whaddyathink?

(Oh, yes, the whole TOTO thing was inspire by this song. Obvious and lame, I know. And in the context of what I’ll probably encounter, wildly inappropriate. But you can’t pin that one on me.)

[Photo: Giraffe and Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania, by Fanny Schertzer.]

73 Replies to “Project TOTO: the #secretmission has begun!”

  1. Finally! I’ve been dying to know what this was all about.

    I can’t think of a better person for for Fi Bendall to have chose, Stil.

    This is going to be a lot fun to follow. 😀

    Good luck. I think you’re going to need it.

  2. I, for one, welcome our Stil-shaped care package that we’re dropping into Tanzania. I look forward to your posts and tweets.

  3. Thanks, everyone. I’ve had lots of positive comments on Twitter, too, which is… sweet.

    The next couple of weeks will include a lot of planning, obtaining equipment, testing the set-up and so on. As soon as we have dates for the actual field work, they’ll be posted.

  4. Firstly, wow, what an adventure.

    Secondly, how long will you be in-country for and how much time have you got before departure?

    Thirdly, what are your initial thoughts on tech requirements? When I read the brief the first thing that popped into my head was the XO laptops (a bit obvious?). The second was the Hole in the Wall project from India ( and, primarily because with limited time in-country there’ll be a limit to what assistance & training you’ll be able to provide, so perhaps you could focus on the ‘What do you want to do?’ question and let them figure out most of the ‘So how do we do it?’.

  5. *sniffles into her hankie* shall be at the airport, waving a teary goodbye (to make sure you go :P)
    Is @fibendall Bosely or Charlie? are there gonna be other angels?

    I guess I lose the bet – it’s not Bali 🙁

  6. @Dean: I should be in Tanzania for a week, but we don’t have the exact dates yet. Ah, logistics! We also have to integrate the new ActionAid blogs into the website, which is scheduled to go live to coincide with the name change on 1 June, so I imagine a week or two after that? I’m guessing.

    I’ll open a whole new thread on the technical requirements tomorrow (Friday) when I get to it.

    @Laurel Papworth: Yes, I know. You’ll be glad to be rid of me. However your literary reference baffles me. I was a sciences boy.

    @Mark: You’re right. The Project TOTO RSS feed wasn’t working. But it is now.

  7. Tanzania, wow! I used to live in Oman (a little to the right of Africa, next to Yemen on the Arabian peninsula) and there were holiday flights to Zanzibar every week from Muscat. Very exotique! I’ve not been to Tanzania but in Oman I did observe up close the work of some very fine aid agencies, UNICEF & Médecins Sans Frontières. They had projects inside Oman (yes, surprisingly there is a lot of poverty in the middle east) as well as mainland Africa. Many of the aid workers used Oman as a “chill out” base for R&R, Yemen not being so safe & Saudi not being desirable.

    Some tips: Go with the flow, you’ll be on “African time”. We had this in Oman. There’s a lot of bureaucracy, all takes time, even when you have all the permits. 🙂 Chill out and enjoy the day.

    Rice is safe to eat, even the bugs (because they’ve been cooked) but try to avoid any worms. 🙂 Trust me, you do get used to pulling the buggers out of your meal. Can’t do much about the microscopic ones so the Travel Doctor should give you some Lomatide or similar. Hopefully you have a strong constitution. Metronidazole is still the treatment of choice (1 – 3 days) should you cop one of the other nasties but I suspect you’ll have a doctor or nurse in your party?

    You do realise it’s summer over there? Will be hot. Very. Can recommend a wide-brimmed hat and/or a Buff scarf.

    Good luck with the mission, sounds a wonderful idea. I look forward to reading the updates. I hope you achieve something worthwhile for the people there. There’s a lot of good happening in Africa, and every step forward is so worthwhile making.

  8. You do realise this is a ruse to get you out of the country. One of our top anti filtering advocates shipped to Africa. 🙂

    Seriously Stil, sounds like a chance of a lifetime, a life changing event. Though if you want to test out challenging bandwidth conditions, the NT or a 2 hour drive from Adelaide would do that for you.

  9. @Desertgirl: Thanks for all that advice. I’ve just had a comprehensive medical briefing — more about that anon — but the “African time” issue is one that I hadn’t thought about. I suspect that our big list of Things We Could do will be brought down to earth pretty hard by that sort of practicality.

    @Sean the Blogonaut: If Senator Conroy wanted me out of the country, well, he should have just said so and sent me the tickets!

    You’re right about the comms gaps here in Australia too, and maybe I should do a trial run here before crossing the Indian Ocean.

  10. Looks sure to be a bit of a tech challenge, sounds like a great adventure too!

    It would seem there are a couple of seemingly decent (seemingly being the operative word) ISPs in Tanzania.

    Just doing a quick hunt around I’ve found both (Tanzania’s Favourite ISP)
    and (Tanzania’s Leading ISP)

    Do you know how far away from major cities etc you’re going?

    When they say you have to establish a blog outpost for the locals, are we talking about somewhere that would have limited access to internet and/or power?

    Just interested in seeing if there are other ways our community can contribute to something like this. 🙂

  11. @Omegatron: I believe ActionAid’s head office in Tanzania is in Dar Es Salaam, the old capital of Tanganyika and still the largest city. However ActionAid UK’s website says:

    We now work with over 65,000 people in remote rural areas. Our main focus is education. We work closely with existing organisations and community groups to make sure that the change we achieve together is appropriate and lasting. ActionAid also campaigns against the economic policies that keep people poor.

    Exactly how “remote rural” we’re talking about, I don’t know.

    And I don’t yet know whether the “blog outpost” is for the ActionAid workers (who are primarily Tanzanian) or whether we’re trying the even more ambitious project of getting some of those rural poor to write and take photos.

  12. Hey Stil,

    It’s great to have you on board with ActionAid and looking forward to seeing today’s vid on yesterday’s shots. As I’ve been saying to a few people this is a big technical and cultural challenge but the potential for us is massive. If we can connect poor people in Tanzania with an online audience in rich countries like Australia we get a connection like there hasn’t been before. This will get more people in rich countries to the core of the poverty issue which is inequality and injustice.

    By the way however bad the tune may be, I can let you know that Toto’s “Africa” is an unofficial national anthem in parts of South Africa but can’t vouch for Tanzania.



  13. I am so glad to hear that your Sekrit Mission is for good, not evil. For the future of the world, not to fuel an ad executive’s ego or campaign. For humanitarian causes, not consumption. Yay!

    If you need help along the way to understand the poverty issues, and technical possibilities, there are some amazing twitter peeps out there who will support you. If you’re not in contact already, try @kanter, @engagejoe, @peterdeitz, @christineegger, @tomjd, @FightPoverty, and @mobileactive ( Using Mobile Phones for Social Impact) — you might find in Africa mobile is easier than web? I’ll be interested to find out.

  14. @Archie Law: And thank you for giving this the green light. Yesterday’s video of me getting the needles was shot in full high-definition glory, and we haven’t had a chance to transcode and edit it yet. Stand by.

    @Christy McCarthy: Thanks very much for those leads! There are some new names there. I’m starting to see that another spin-off from this project is reinforcing the ties between the people who are already “doing stuff” in this arena.

  15. Bad news Stil the gnome has to go. At ActionAid a major focus on our work focuses on enabling women to claim their human rights and the presence of the topless gnome is degrading and offensive to women. Why you ask? Try this, one in five women across the globe are likely to be raped during their lives, women grow 80% of the food in developing countries but own only 2% of the food, and in South Africa women are more likely to be raped than learn how to read and then there’s sexual violence in the Congo which in my opinion is amongst the greatest, if not the greatest, mass crime against humanity this last 100 years. We therefore have a situation where women in developing countries lack dignity, equality, justice and their human rights. To enable us to help women in developing countries claim their human rights we need your help and you need to remove the gnome!

  16. I agree — the topless gnome doesn’t go too well with ActionAid’s key theme of protecting Women’s Rights! If a gnome is essential for background decoration, maybe you could show a cute (and fully-dressed) one like in Amélie. 😉

  17. Stil, I am with Archie on this one. I could say much more on this as I think your gnome is degrading to any woman, but I am sure that you have been given enough reasons to remove it already!

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