“The jackal went streaking past me while I held the irrigation pipe!” Christopher Robin told me looking as wide-eyed and innocent as the character from the children’s story. But Christopher Robin Haughton has little else in common with story book characters. Christopher is a young man from South Africa who’s come to America (for the first time) to work as farm labor on our neighbor’s farm.
“Coyote,” I corrected him, “that wasn’t a jackal—that was a coyote.”
Christopher repeated the word “coyote,” rolling it around on his tongue, trying to get the “y” sound right. It was obviously difficult with his thick Afrikaan accent. Both Christopher and his friend Steven, who’s also from South Africa and came to work on our neighbor’s farm, speak Afrikaan. Afrikaan is a dialect derived from the Dutch language. Christopher and Steven are descendants of Dutch colonists who settled in that country in the 17th century.
“How is it different here compared to South Africa?” I asked the young men, curious about their response.
Steven looked around him, the desert and the canyon walls, and commented there’s no sagebrush where he comes from. He said South Africa has lots of thorn bushes though. He also said it’s much hotter and drier in the American West.
“I didn’t bring enough water to drink walking irrigation pipes across the field–and suddenly, I got nauseous and dizzy,” Steven looked at me bewildered. “I couldn’t believe I had heat stroke! I’ve never had heat stroke before. They even had to take me to the hospital.”
Forty years ago when I first came to Idaho as a young woman, I tried moving irrigation lines. I remember how surprisingly light the aluminum pipes were, but long and unwieldy. Moving one joint of pipe was fairly doable, but three lines of 32 joints? I didn’t have the strength or the stamina, even though I was only in my early 20’s.
“Moving irrigation pipes is all right, but there’s snakes here, and I’m afraid of snakes (and apparently, coyotes too),” Christopher said.
I noticed then that Christopher was wearing shorts and anklet socks and suggested that he always wear pants, and especially boots, in the fields. Hearing this, both men burst out laughing. They explained that just last week Steven was moving pipe when Christopher spotted a rattlesnake wrapped around one of Steven’s rubber irrigation boots.
“Our roommate, Luis, is a much better irrigator than we are,” Steven admitted ruefully. Luis is from Mexico, and both men seemed to be in awe of him.
“Luis is fast and efficient when he moves irrigation pipes. He learned from his ‘vadar’ (father) how to link the lines together quickly, and while the water’s running through the pipe.”
Steven and Christopher both have farm background in South Africa. Steven’s father raises wine grapes, and Christopher worked on a ranch herding Brahmin cattle. They told me that where they’re from in the Cape provinces, farmers don’t irrigate much.
“So, do South African farmer need to hire farm labor?”
“Yes, sometimes,” Steven said. “In the east Blacks work as farm labor, and in the west, Browns—Bushmen, do.”
“Yes Bushmen. Have you heard about these people? They have a distinctive way of talking where they make a clicking sound when they speak.”
In fact years ago I’d watched a movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy, about Kalahari Bushmen who spoke as Steven described.
We ended our little visit with a wave goodbye, and walking away I thought what nice young men Steven and Christopher were. I also considered how exciting it was for them to work far away from home on an American farm. It was a lark and a challenge for them–but for many farm laborers it’s a way of life, and their only means of survival.
Image Credit: Diana Hooley Image Credit: The Gods Must Be Crazy