Far from home and with no certainty around their future, seasonal workers at the Skybury Tropical Plantation have found an unlikely way to stay motivated and happy.
- The Jerusalema Challenge social media phenomenon has reached a tropical fruit plantation in Far North Queensland
- It has become the unlikely way to unite and inspire farm workers, many of them far from home and unable to return
- Facing a critical shortage of labour, farmers are using novel approaches to keep their existing workers happy
They have embraced the “Jerusalema Challenge” — a social media phenomenon which started during the height of the global pandemic.
In the same way Italians that took to their balconies to sing, and the Gerry and the Pacemakers hit You’ll Never Walk Alone saturated British radio, the soulful beats of Jerusalema, became an unofficial African anthem.
The gospel-inspired song, by South Africa’s Master KG and Nomcebo Zikode, topped the charts there in 2019 and at the start of the pandemic in 2020 people began posting videos of themselves dancing to it with a series of simple of moves, which were replicated by others, first across Africa, then around the world.
“Just joy, that’s the first thing — and dance. It goes together,” worker Bongani Ndawana said.
He arrived from Zimbabwe to do farm work in Mareeba four years ago.
“That’s the way it’s been in Africa for ages.
“So for me it’s like ‘oh we’re doing it? Well we better be happy then’.”
The former science teacher re-trained and became the plant nursery manager at Skybury — and is one of team of 100 overseas workers who keep the production line moving with fresh papaya and coffee.
Mr Ndawana now has a few new skills to add to his resume after participating in the dance challenge that has taken the farm by storm.
“I had a bit of an advantage because I was knowing what the song was saying, and the African rhythm,” he said.
“Some were missing steps, which always happens, I was missing steps too following the choreographer the for the first few weeks but even if you’re missing a step, just keep on going, just move to the beat,” he said.
Paid time to practise
But how did it become the unofficial anthem of a tropical fruit plantation at Mareeba?
“Like most great ideas, over a glass of wine at the dinner table,” Skybury general manager Candy MacLaughlin said.
“We had a family friend over who works for another farm and she said ‘how about we challenge you to do the Jerusalema challenge?'”
Having agreed to the challenge, Ms MacLaughlin recruited the help of her aunt, a trained ballerina.
“Once a week, we brought her up to the farm and we pulled each team out for half an hour and she taught them the steps and the dance and then during the week we would give them paid time to then practice,” she said.
But Ms MacLaughlin admitted that what started out as a bit of fun and a marketing opportunity, soon became much more.
“To see how genuinely amazed they were to be involved in something of that magnitude, to bring 100 people together, teach them a dance, see the joy on their faces and then … when that music started, the cheer was deafening, it was amazing,” she said.
Back in the Skybury packing shed, Ms MacLaughlin is working to the beat of a different drum — the relentless demands of getting fast-ripening papayas to market.
“I think we’re running on between seven and 10 people short every day, which is a picking team in itself,” she said.
Keeping workers happy
With indefinite international travel bans and backpacker numbers dwindling, a critical shortage of workers makes retaining existing staff even more important for the Skybury operation.
Among them is Papua New Guinean Sharon Kisok, who arrived in Australia under the seasonal worker program almost two years ago, expecting to stay for nine months.
Mr Ndawana is also looking to his future on the farm with optimism, having last month attained his Australian citizenship just last month.
“If you can just give yourself that motivation of doing it every day, you get into the tune of it.”
Meantime, the viral dance craze continues to inspire the workers on the plantation, many of them far from home.
“It’s just people not knowing [and] in an uncertain future,” Mr Ndawana said.
“It’s going to be better in the future, next year is going to be better.”