Defying Cultural Boundaries

A wood-carven map of Rwanda sits against the curved white shelf in my office. Wistfully, and perhaps more in wonder, I find myself staring at the map sometimes – in between the lists of “to do’s” of grant applications, communications, and advocacy efforts for The Women’s Bakery.

The map is full of intricate etches; boundaries within the country of Rwanda are lined and marked – Kamonyi, Karongi, Gicumbi, along with the 27 other districts. I purchased this piece of art in the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, and I think I paid around $5. With the amount of required skill to create something so beautiful, I know it is worth so much more.

The boundaries may indicate a political designation, but as the work of TWB engages us further with different aspects of culture, I realize more and more that boundaries are quite fluid – particularly in the realm of international development and women.

In Rwanda, we work with women from all different parts of the country. They might speak the same language, but their experiences in motherhood, in families, in work, and in education all vary. A “one narrative” story doesn’t exist with our women’s groups, nor would we expect it to.

In Denver, I recently attended a Rwandan-Burundian wedding with over 300 guests. The guests, however, were all from countries in East Africa. The complexities of boundaries were instantaneously apparent: Rwandans raised in Tanzania; Burundians raised in Congo; Congolese raised in Rwanda.

Between cold fanta and traditional dancing, I met a young, fiery woman who is soon to receive her degree in international business. A Burundian, she is preparing to launch a social enterprise in her home country to provide business opportunity for women. She listened intently as I told her about TWB’s work in East Africa – about our small, mighty team of both Rwandans and Americans committed to developing a business model fueled by Rwandan women – and she yelped with joy. “It is absolutely amazing,” she said, “to meet individuals committed to moving past cultural lines to help others. Americans care, Burundians care….we can all care about work that matters.”

I smiled exuberantly. I thought of my map of Rwanda. I thought of how incredible it is that in working across cultures, we can all participate in mobilizing solutions – whether it’s TWB women, our supporters, or our teachers. We can all do something. For this, there is no boundary.