While we struggle to work on our global image and have practically given up of engineering Pakistan as a tourist destination, the cultural portal Danka, inadvertently and quite unwittingly has embarked on a gold mine of cultural exchange, by inviting foreigners to come work with it.
Founded by an Austrian, Andreas Matt, who came to Pakistan to work at SOS Village, Danka was born out of a necessity for people like Matt who were starving for culture but were unable to find a tangible access to it. “It was very difficult for me to find out what was going on in Lahore,” says Matt. “Often I would read an article about an event that happened ‘yesterday’, so my friends from Lahore Chitrkar, a non-profit organisation by a group of artists, and I decided to create an open platform to share this information and promote events (that are poorly visited) and to help artists to announce their events.”
Currently, Danka is succeeded by 22-year-old Albert Grasnek, an Austrian, who has also come to Pakistan as a social service requirement by the government. “I didn’t want to go serve in the military and chose instead to work six months in Pakistan and six months in Bhutan,” says Grasnek, who has been planning this since he was 18-years-old. It may not be as grave as military service, yet he feels very strongly about his work with Danka. “Culture has been eroding since the 1970s in Pakistan with repressive regimes and now security threats, therefore it’s important to increase it for people to enjoy and appreciate it even more.” One can’t help but ask then, if he was afraid of stepping into this unchartered territory? “In the beginning, yes, but now that I’m here, I am not and it’s all because of the friendly people that I have met.”
Grasnek, however, may not be all that naive since countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, and more recently Tunisia and Egypt, have embarked on youth centered travel and work campaigns with the incentive of changing their country’s global image, as well as their local perception by inviting foreigners in to experience the local culture. “I have learnt so much culture in Pakistan that I couldn’t have ever imagined sitting in Europe,” says Grasnek, giving full credit to Danka. “I wouldn’t ever get to meet so many liberal people, had I not been working for a cultural portal like Danka.”
Although it is just an online portal, Danka provides an exciting example of how simple initiatives can aid in changing Pakistan’s global image by playing on soft power created through such cultural forums. Developing countries like the Philippines, for instance, currently have hoards of students pouring in from around the world to help with rural development and education programmes in their villages and farms. While security will always remain a potent threat in Pakistan, there will always be young adults like Danka’s Austrians, who will be audacious enough to want to experience a culture and life fundamentally different from theirs and make a positive contribution to the development and image of a country like Pakistan. The government may be inept at creating these avenues but perhaps more youth centered organisations, like AIESEC, for instance, can play their part in generating soft power for the country.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 19th, 2011.