After spending 14 years traveling the globe in his work with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Westminster resident Brian Backe jumped at the chance to help farmers in Uganda when the charity reached out to him in retirement.
“I said, absolutely,” Backe said.
Backe said while working for CRS as the senior director of U.S. programs, he helped write part of the proposal for the organization to participate in the Farmer-to-Farmer Program, which serves to provide knowledge and resources to farmers across the globe, according to its website. Backe didn’t known then that he’d eventually be one of the people participating in the program.
Before CRS, Backe spent 11 years with fair trade organization SERRV International, which also took him abroad. He spent the majority of his time there as marketing director. Between his travels for work and pleasure, Backe has been to 24 countries, several of them in Africa.
Backe traveled to Uganda not to offer agricultural expertise, but to teach the leaders of a farmers cooperative how to be leaders and manage their more than 4,000 members. Funded by the United States Agency for International Development and representing CRS, Backe departed Nov. 15 for the three-week experience.
Backe trained 170 people from the Kamuli District Farmers Association. The city of Kamuli lies in Central Uganda in the Busoga region, Backe said. He trained people who could then train others in the farmers cooperative, according to Backe.
To prepare for the trip, Backe wrote a leadership manual focused on the philosophy of “servant leadership.”
“I think the only kind of leadership that make sense is leaders who want to serve their people,” Backe said in an interview.
He traveled to five villages, training groups ranging in size from 15 to 40 people at a time, according to Backe. Each training took about six hours and he was assisted by an interpreter. Backe instructed his students on how to lead meetings, manage people, handle conflict, evaluate projects, and more.
“They nailed it,” Backe said. “I was really impressed by how passionate they were about learning.”
Some participants traveled 1 to 3 hours to attend Backe’s workshops. He said one woman walked a few miles, caught a ride on a motorcycle, then walked a few more miles. Heavy rain also created muddy ruts in the road, which delayed those traveling by car, according to Backe.
One Ugandan man, who helped Backe travel to villages, lost his son to a rabid dog bite while Backe was visiting. Backe went with him to the funeral and, within a few days, the man was back to assisting Backe.
“They value people, they value relationships, they value community,” Backe said. “I think what Africans have to teach us, and Ugandans, is this sense of how people matter."
When it came to teaching leadership skills, Backe pointed to three examples — the life of Nelson Mandela, the way Southwest Airlines prioritized its employees after 9/11, and the story of Jesus washing the feet of disciples.
Through the experience, Backe said he saw himself as more of a facilitator than a teacher.
“I didn’t give them the knowledge,” Backe said. “My job was to pull it out of them.”
While it is important these farmers know how to grow crops and tend to livestock, Backe said learning how to better manage the farmers cooperative can also help them to feed their families.
While there, Backe learned about Uganda’s culture, ate its food, and got to know its people.
Backe described those he met as “gracious to a fault” and “generous of spirit.” He became good friends with the chairman of the farmers cooperative — a man named Vincent who is three years younger than Backe’s 60, and called him “brother.”
He encourages others to take the opportunity to travel, should it arise. Visiting Uganda fulfilled a lifelong dream of Backe’s. When he was a student pursuing a master’s degree in the 1980s, he dreamed of serving in the Peace Corps, but put that goal on hold to start a family. Having participated in the Farmer-to-Farmer Program, Backe now feels like he’s had the experience he so desired.