BEIRUT: For most 5-year-olds, life is about school, playing in the dirt and tricking adults into letting you stay up later than you should.
For Toby Little, however, life right now is about letters and a mission to learn something about every single country in the world.
It all began with a book.
Toby, from Sheffield, England, was in the middle of his first year at school, when he brought home a book called “A Letter to New Zealand.” In it, a boy writes a letter to another little boy on the other side of the world and eventually gets a reply.
“This book sparked the question: ‘Mummy, can I write a letter to New Zealand?’” Toby’s mother Sabine Little elicited on the website she set up to track the project.
“Cue Mummy racking her brain to think of potential contacts. My response: ‘Yeeeah, I think so,’ which was immediately followed by Toby saying: ‘Can I write a letter to the whole world?’”
And so the idea of writing to the world was born. So far, Little has written 234 letters, covering 186 of the 193 U.N. recognized countries.
He has so far received 64 replies from countries all over the world. His favorites are the ones in which respondents take his questions seriously.
“In the response he got from Zakouma National Park in Chad,” Sabine explains by email, “he found out that they had named a baby elephant after him – I think that one is hard to top!
“He also loves drawings from children – a school in Sydney, Australia, sent him lots of drawings of their favorite things in Sydney,” she adds. “And then he loves responses from places that were really tricky to get hold of, like some of the Pacific Island nations.”
Some of the letters are delightful for their childish innocence.
In a letter to Mohammad in Egypt, Toby writes: “Do you still write in hieroglyphs? Have you ever swum in in the River Nile or been to the pyramids?”
Other letters display a better knowledge of countries than most grown adults could boast.
“Hi Roger, how are you?” begins his letter to a correspondent in Lebanon. “Do you speak Arabic? Have you been to the museum where the printing press is?”
Not many people would know that what is thought to be the Middle East’s first ever printing press is in a museum in a monastery in north Lebanon’s Qadisha Valley.
“Dear Ingrid and Jean Marc, how are you?” Toby writes in his letter to Ethiopia. “Have you been to the Blue Nile? Have you been to the Lion Zoo? What is your job? Have you seen the Lucy fossil? Bye, Toby.”
Toby loves “history, archaeology, exploration, wildlife, fossils and volcanoes,” his mother says, and as such, a lot of questions focus on these subjects. His dream for the more than a year has been to become a paleontologist and set up a center to study fossils right next to his family home.
Sabine helps Toby decide what questions he wants to ask by looking at pictures online and then researching them further. Possible correspondents are found through friends – or friends of friends – and Sabine emailing wildlife centers, schools and similar institutions to ask if they would be willing to help out.
His curiosity also meant writing to some places that aren’t really countries at all.
“Mummy says Antarctica isn’t on the ‘proper’ list of countries,” explains a note on the project’s website, “but because I want to become a paleontologist or explorer or scientist, I want to write a few letters to Antarctica – I have so many questions!”
The letter is due to travel to Antarctica on the polar Astrolabe ship in October once the sea routes reopen at the beginning of the Antarctic summer.
Toby didn’t shy away from writing to countries better known for war and oppression than fossils and exploration.
To the German ambassador to North Korea, he asks: “Why are the people in North Korea not allowed to write to me? ... Did you choose to go to North Korea?”
While in one to Sudan he writes: “Have you ever been in a sand storm? Are they dangerous?”
He adds: “What happened to the lost boys? Are they okay now?”
His letter to a Syrian pen pal is one of the most touching.
“Dear Mohamad, how are you? What is like living in Damascus? I am sorry about all the people dying. Please tell me something beautiful about Syria. What food do you eat? What is your job? Bye, Toby.”
The pen-pal project is underscored by what Toby’s mother calls his “big ‘social conscience.’”
“Through the project,” she explains, “the one thing that has developed is an understanding of the different situations people all over the world are finding themselves in.”
His letter to Somalia reads:
“Hi Atta ... Why are the people fighting? What can I do to help the children? Bye, Toby.”
As a result, the project is also raising funds for ShelterBox, an international disaster relief charity.
Sabine says she has been overwhelmed by the number of people applying to be Toby’s pen pal since the project was posted on social media website Reddit, which has a habit of making things go viral. Even before it got picked up, however, she was bowled over by the fact that people were willing to take part in such an ambitious task.
“People we will probably never meet have gone all out, just because a little boy said he wanted to write to somebody in every country in the world.”
For online followers of Toby’s quest, the letters, and the responses they have elicited so far, are all up on project’s website.
Back in the Little home, however, the responses are being carefully stored for the future.
“I think it will become a treasure trove that he will hopefully revisit again and again as he gets older, as a reminder that he dared to dream big as a child.”
To see where Toby is still waiting to hear back from, visit writingtotheworld.com. To donate to Toby’s ShelterBox fund, visit justgiving.com/writingtotheworld.