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. I’m afraid the gnome is the point of the thing. A litmus test, as it were. If the gnome goes, so will the sense of humour.

  2. I’m afraid Mpesce has missed the point. There is nothing funny about women losing their dignity and I could tell you stories about what it was like working with rape survivors in Srebenica in the 90’s but some other time. The gnome is a symbol of that loss of dignity hence our call for the gnome to go. For info my sense of humour is well and truly intact and has helped me in some of the places I’ve worked these last 10 years. So Stil when’s it going?

  3. I can’t help but feel a little rapey whenever I see the gnome, so I’ve got to go with Archie on this one; put some clothes on the gnome and tell it to stop pouting like that.

  4. Could the gnome wear a little t-shirt by way of compromise? Perhaps one with an appropriate slogan supporting women’s rights in Tanzania or just an ActionAid tee?

    I get what ActionAid is trying to achieve with empowering the women in Tanzania. But I’d like to make a comment about Zanzibar, the island part of Tanzania. And maybe Archie could comment later. When I lived in Oman in the late 90s-00s, Zanzibar was a very popular holiday destination for British expatriate women. Sex tours. Hiring the gigolo Tanzanian boy or man to keep them entertained for a week of sun and fun. I’ve just spoken with my daughter and she confirms this was still the case when she left in 2005. Used to make the news occasionally back in the UK, and in the far more conservative Islamic Oman. My understanding was that there was plenty of pressure applied to the Tanzanian women to service the expatriate male tourists on holiday. And it all seemed to be regarded as a bit of a laugh amongst the expats (although I have to say the Aussie and NZ crowd seemed to find it distasteful, other nationalities not so). Sex, the great, tradable commodity huh? Anyway, just wondered if ActionAid were aware of this situation or whether it has improved? From my observations it is poverty that drives the exploitation of the men as well as the women.

    Stil, I see a potential for Gnaomi to be used to send a powerful message here. Just a thought.

    1. Now the idea of covering the gnome in a mini ActionAid T Shirt is a nice one, we”ll see if we can get one….stay tuned

  5. It should (perhaps) be pointed out that the Tanzania wikipedia entry features a depiction of a topless (black) woman as being representative of the culture


    Maokonde carving

    Next to the black topless African woman is a male depicted holding a erect penis – a symbol of fertility in this type of carving – which are quite common in the middle East, Asia and seemingly parts of Africa.

    An objection based on an observation that the naked gnome is white is a form of racist sentiment that hopefully we are attempting to eradicate.

    CONCLUSION: NAKED GNOME STAYS !! …. and travels to Africa with the missionary
    (Australian customs permission no doubt required – especially on return to Australia as it could be a prohibited import or subjec to quarrantine restrictions – Australian customs are prone to remove skins from African drums for instance)

  6. I’ve got no problem with the carving featured on Wikipedia — it’s an accurate depiction of a woman in traditional dress several decades ago. Nowdays times have changed a bit — even in Tanzania…

    Perhaps if we could verify that female gnomes are topless in their traditional environment we could keep the Gnaomi as she is? Luckily for the ‘pro clothed-gnome’ lobby, Wiki entries showing gnomes in their traditional environment are all clothed — it seems that Gnaomi is the subject of the same objectification that women face everywhere. And that is NOT ok.

    Clothe the Gnome!

    1. A considered reply? What are you, a fucking journalist? The internet demands an reactionary, incendiary response that is ill-considered and offensive to God and Country.

  7. The war on the gnome builds and the side of light is gaining momentum. Info on the status of women on the ActionAid UK site whilst we wait 9 days for the ActionAid Australia site to go live

  8. My first imagery of Darkest Africa was of the National Geographic curriculum image of unclad Tanzanian women. So that idea has haunted me all my life. Back then it seemed acceptable at least in boy groups to idolise women’s breasts. However society has become a disjointed and it is now considered that this concept is offensive in mixed company and can encourage bad men’s behaviour. So it’s very hard to decide but the big picture is probably to stop idolising breasts.

  9. It’s a… garden gnome. Believing a topless garden gnome is “degrading and offensive” to women (and by implication, you’d have to believe that somehow the gnome was sexual to begin with) says far more about the people making the call then it does about the gnome itself.

    Forgive me if I don’t find the gnome sexually interesting or more. Maybe I’m not trendy enough to fantasise about garden gnomes and believe that some how a garden gnome could be representative of downtrodden women.

    Look on the bright side: if you do get rid of it, send it to the gnome fetishists, I’m sure it would make an interesting sex toy. 😉

  10. Now I’m confused by this debate about Gnaomi and am now not sure how to interpret the various indigenous women around the world whose traditional attire does not include wearing of tops?

    Examples include: various African, Amazonian, Australian Aboriginal tribes, women on beaches in Sydney, etc.

    Are those women “degrading and offensive” to women? And can someone remind me of why breasts are ‘bad’ again?

    I tend to be more worried about sexualisation of women rather than about mere nudity.

    1. That’s a very good comment. Has got me thinking a jumble of thoughts.

      I’m betting the women in your examples would most definitely not consider what they’re not wearing as sexualising women. Most women (I hope & assume) don’t consider breasts or their exposure to be “bad”. So where does it come from? This need to be covered up and ultra conservative? As a woman, my immediate response is to say it’s men who cannot see beyond the sexual aspect of a woman’s anatomy or nakedness. And how can we change this attitude? I don’t see Gnaomi as a sexual symbol, I am not in the least offended by her state of undress. But would a woman from Tanzania regard Gnaomi in a different light? This is a far more complex and ethically challenging issue than I first thought.

      I suspect ActionAid is concerned about the very real possibility they may find their projects in Tanzania in jeopardy if anyone working with/for them gives offence to the local muslim population. Deportation has wide ranging consequences for an aid agency.

      Part of me says the gnome is part of Stil’s image, his brand & therefore should appear in his #toto videos as seen on Stilgherrian Live. But my experience living in a muslim country tells me to reflexively give no offence to the people of the country you’re visiting.

      Lots to ponder.

  11. I’m ambivalent about Gnaomi’s bare breasts. I guess the issue with her and with all women, is whether she wants to reveal her breasts or not. Since she’s a garden gnome, we’re not really going to know that.

    OTOH, offense is always in the eye of the beholder. If there are people who are offended by the sight of breasts displayed for non-utilitarian purposes, then it seems respectful for Gnaomi to cover up. (If the breasts are being used for feeding a child, then I think that’s a different issue). Besides, I suspect she might be getting cold. The physical evidence seems to point that way.

    If you so decide, I’ll volunteer to make her an appropriate garment.

  12. It is great to see that Bob may yet be swayed, and that this discussion has been given due weight.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with women showing their breasts if it is relevant — Tanzanian women in a traditional setting, on the beach in Brazil, breast feeding (anywhere!) etc.

    I’ve not yet been in any office where women are topless. — in Dar Es Salaam, rural Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, Melbourne, New York, Copenhagen or Sydney. There was that ‘Weather Channel’ in the US, but that is a whole other discussion… For me, it is all about the relevance of the situation. If, for example, this is not what Gnaomi would do in her day to day life or it is not an accurate depiction of what other women in a similar situation would do, then it points to nothing other than the objectification and sexualisation of women and their breasts for the viewer. Again, NOT ok…

    This is not about Islam nor about ‘Developed’ versus ‘Developing’ — it is about relevance. And a naked Gnaomi is nothing but gratuitous.

    Clothe the Gnome!

  13. Has anyone ever come across a male gnome naked “down there”? If not, why not?

    If Stil had a naked male gnome with a cartoonishly oversized appendage in all his videos, would we think “it’s just a gnome”?

    Is it easier and more acceptable to objectify women than men? What does that say about our culture?

    Have I managed to write a whole post using questions only?

  14. I’ll add some more thoughts to the pile before my full response. Yes, there are naked male gnomes. However I suggest that a Google Images search for same only be conducted by the strong-hearted, as many images are unrelated to the conversation at hand.

    Here’s a selection.

    Photographs of four male gnomes, including one nakes with his hands covering his genitals, one exposing his bare buttocks, one with an exaggerated penis, and one engaged in sex with a female gnome

    Now, remember that judge’s decision in late 2008 that cartoons are people, so cartoon images of The Simpsons characters having sex are pornography? That got worldwide media coverage.

    Does this perhaps goes to the very centre of this discussion?

    Are gnomes people?

    By this same logic, by posting a picture of two gnomes having sex without an age verification mechanism, I’ve made this web page susceptible to being added to the ACMA blacklist of prohibited Internet content.

Comments are closed.