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. Much like some other gnomes, there’s a glaring logical leap here that nobody’s explaining. Phase one: topless gnome. Phase two: ???? Phase three: rape.

    Those who would argue phase two is ‘objectification of women’ need to demonstrate how a topless garden gnome is sexually stimulating or casts women as sexual objects. With a straight face.

    Archie seems a lot more interested in harumphing, propaganda and throwing his weight around than making a logical argument.

    You haven’t even got on the plane, Stil, and they’re already PRing you to death.

    Welcome to the dark side.

  2. Here’s some pictures of the covered Gnomes

    Cover up – a buxom gnome is given some clothing

    A tiny blouse makes this blonde gnome respectable

    The GnomeBandits blog comments

    “I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t allowed from time to time to stroll the garden au naturelle. It’s amazing to me that a neighbor with children would have a complaint about dear Sandra Smith’s gnomes. Now those children aren’t going to have too much fun in the sprinkler this Summer.”


  3. I was using the examples from our work to demonstrate that a loss of dignity and respect for women ultimately can, and has, lead to a loss of human rights and social catastrophe in many parts of the world. If vealmince wants to twist himself/herself into some sort of logical spaghetti connecting all of this I certainly don’t want to interrupt his/her fun.

    I thought I would post something on here concerning a horrible situation from Uganda where a man has been forcing his wife to breast feed puppies to provide some evidence for why we fight hard on this issue. And no vealmince I’m not saying there is a thread of rational tagliatelle that links a topless gnome to this sort of crime in Uganda, what I am saying is that I reject any affront to a woman’s dignity and a lack of respect from men towards women!

  4. Archie, I find it rather disturbing that you infer that women who *choose* to display their body are, by some arbitrary definition, bereft of dignity.

    It’s just a garden gnome, for goodness’ sake.

  5. Not inferring that at all Toejam… you are. Actually being some sort of moral prude is probably the last thing I would ever be accused of..if that’s what you’re trying to infer?

    You’re right it is just a garden gnome with its boobs hanging out making a mockery of women so therefore why not get the damm thing off Stil’s desk?

  6. If there’s no link, Archie, why do you keep posting links to lurid descriptions of crimes against women, as if they lend your ridiculous claim moral authority? And why do you have to insult everyone who disagrees with you? They’re just cheap and transparent rhetorical tricks that lower the tone of the debate.

    It’s not that I’m in favour of disrespect for women, as you imply, it’s just that there’s no connection with poor old Gnaomi.

    I don’t know if you’ve looked at many garden gnomes, but the point of them is that they’re grotesque parodies of PEOPLE. They’re supposed to be ugly and undignified. But nobody looks at a male garden gnome and says, ‘Harumph! This is offensive to more than 20% of men in US prisons who are victims of rape or forced sexual contact.’

    (See, I can link to unpleasant things as well, but it doesn’t prove or disprove my argument.)

    I have a lot of respect for ActionAid’s work, but you’re not doing your image any favours with all this bluster and bullying over something so completely inconsequential.

  7. The kind of person who gets up in arms over “a garden gnome with its boobs hanging out making a mockery of women” is exactly the kind of person I would accuse of “being some sort of moral prude”, or at the very least bearing a rather unflattering resemblance to Clive Hamilton.

    “why not get the damm thing off Stil’s desk?” Because it’s Stil’s desk, not yours.

  8. No insults or implications veal mince. I’m simply noting your ability to twist yourself into knots by your use of overly emotive lines such as my “ridiculous claim to moral authority” which is interesting as I have no moral authority whatsoever. I’m just presenting a point of view on the importance of dignity and respect and you happen to disagree with my stance on the what’s the problem?

    I’m not actually in this to build any image. I am who I am, I believe in what I believe in based on my experiences working with people who are poor on four continents over the last 15 years and that’s that.

  9. Thanks Toejam, I know it’s Stil’s desk and not mine and I’m looking forward to reading Stil’s response to this at some point. This is all Stil’s call, its a free world of social media out there and Stil is a free agent not our agent. For me the gnome is contrary to my personal views and the views of the organisation that I work for and have the deepest respect for. Therefore noise will be made and I’m enjoying the discussion.

    I can probably do without the accusations but its a free space and you’re free to accuse anyone of being anything. Enjoy!

  10. Archie, at least we agree you have no moral authority whatsoever, but you’re still trying to claim one. And that’s not just me getting tangled into logical linguine.

    When you say ‘You need to get rid of the gnome because RAPE RAPE RAPE DOG BREASTFEEDING!’ (ew), you are using the very serious and terrible issue of rape to lend credibility (moral authority, if you like) to your opinion that a garden gnome might be offensive to some women. Even though, by your own admission, there’s no connection. Because it’s easier, and for some people more persuasive, than arguing for removing the gnome based on your opinion alone.

    And given you’re paying for Stilgherrian’s ticket etc, aren’t you in a position of considerable power, or at least influence? So when you say things like “Bad news Stil the gnome has to go” and “you need to remove the gnome!”, is this merely expressing an opinion, or being a bully and trying to censor? There is an implied threat, no?

    There’s a difference between expressing your opinion and using propaganda and power to get your way. As head of an organisation that works to help the poor and powerless, you should be very careful about crossing that line.

  11. Veal mince, I’m in complete disagreement with your arguments in your last post (certainty is always reassuring) but I can hear the sound of the dead horse being flogged in our exchange.

    We are in a position of influence, we need to use that influence carefully and I haven’t, and don’t, threaten anyone. I have been expressing an opinion on this misplaced gnome as our agreement with Stil is that he has freedom to move. This is why we took this project on in the first place rather than using a more traditional approach for the launch of ActionAid Australia.

    We are very much looking forward to Stil getting on the ground in Tanzania, there will be some incredible stories coming.

  12. As I mentioned before, I was planning to write a considered response to this gnome question. That response is now online.

    It took more than eight hours all up, so I’m going to take a bit of a break for now. I’ll be moderating comments, but won’t make any detailed responses until later today.

  13. OMG! the whole thing is amazing. well done Stil for taking a stand and actually doing something that might make a difference. I’ll see if I can get to your farewell…. won’t be till late tho; I have a student Sat arvos.

Comments are closed.