Jerome Kaino, My Story

An extract from Jerome Kaino’s book, My Story. Published in SPASIFIKmag issue 65 pre Rugby World Cup final.


Jerome Kaino, star of the All Blacks’ triumphant double Rugby World Cup campaign, is rare among the many samoans to have worn the silver fern in that he was born in American Samoa. But his time in the US territory was brief as his parents soon decided New Zealand was the place of opportunity. In an exclusive extract from his biography Jerome Kaino, My Story he details his journey and how living on the southside of the world’s largest polynesian city shaped his future in the chapter south Auckland.


Dads's family is from Fausaga, on the main island of Upolu in Western Samoa, and Satupaitea (on Savai’i, the smaller island). Mum’s is from Matatufu on the main island. Things were pretty tough in Samoa in the 1980s, when I was born. Most families got by on what they could grow for themselves and relied for anything above subsistence on money sent home by expats, mostly those working low-paid, manual jobs in New Zealand. My parents Sa and Velonika already had two kids, my older brother Kaino and my sister Taoa, when they decided to move to Tutuila, the main island of American Samoa, to stay with relatives and see if they couldn’t make a more secure future for themselves. For two years, Dad worked on family land and had a job cleaning buses at a local bus depot. That’s what he was doing when I came along on 6 April 1983. I was born at what is now known as the Lyndon B. Johnson Medical Center in Pago Pago, capital of American Samoa. That’s why I’m technically American. I even have the passport.


It wasn’t long before my parents decided there weren’t many opportunities in American Samoa either, so they made arrangements to travel back to Western Samoa and applied to move to the land of promise, to Niu Sila (New Zealand), where Dad’s brother Pisopa was already living with his young family. We were approved and arrived In Auckland on a Saturday in 1987 — the year that the All Blacks beat France to win the inaugural World Cup. I don’t remember anything about travelling over: I was too small.


Dad had visited his brother and his wife Paula a few times, but now that he’d decided to make the big move, things can’t have looked too promising. Pisopa was on the dole, and his family (three kids) and the six of us — Mum and Dad and us four kids (my younger brother Ben had been born by then) — had to share their little three-bedroom house in Game Place, Papakura. My entire family slept in the lounge. That might sound pretty rough, but it wasn’t at all unusual in those days for Samoan immigrant families, who were used to sharing the main fale back in Samoa, anyway. Still, I bet the adults thought it was all pretty cramped.


Dad had a stroke of luck the day after our arrival. Someone came knocking on the door asking if anyone wanted work, labouring at Hume’s, the manufacturer of concrete products like culvert pipes and motorway median barriers. Dad started work on the Monday. Our new life had begun.


Dad and Mum didn’t speak much English when they arrived, but they got by with the support of the big Samoan community in South Auckland. Life revolved around family, work and church. I don’t remember anything much about the early days until we were established in our own house, a typical state house that we rented on Maurice Street in Papakura. We stayed in that house for 19 or so eventful years, and my two youngest siblings — Tina (named afterDad’s mum) and Bruce — were born while we were there. As the third of six children, I always had to look after the little ones and do the chores for the older ones. It was great having five siblings. We were our own gang, and there were always things to do and trouble to get into. Dad reckons I was a good kid when I was growing up. I was popular with all the old people at church because I always had a smile on my face. I was always tall for my age, but I was skinny, so those same old people always shake their heads now and tell Dad that they never dreamed I would be a rugby player. I seemed to make friends easily, too, so I loved school.


For my parents’ generation, when they came to New Zealand, their first priority or obligation was to send as much money back home as they could. Mum and Dad also came here to give us a better future, but initially I think they came over to help their parents. As an adult in what is a well-paying job, I don’t feel under pressure from my parents to help the family back in Samoa as much as they did. I’m always willing to help out though, within reason. Thinking back, it added to our struggle. I think Mum and Dad could have come over and made a decent living but because they felt they had to help out back in the islands it made things tougher for us and them.


Dad, who has a sister and four brothers, is a very quiet guy. We have a good relationship. He’s very kind, even if he doesn’t exactly go overboard expressing affection. He doesn’t like to show much emotion. Even when he was proud of me, he would still stay quiet. He might give me a nod. I soon learned to recognise the special nods. But growing up, our relationship was good, as long as you didn’t get in trouble with the police or anything.


Mum is also from a big family — one of four boys and three girls — and I believe she is the polar opposite of Dad. She’s very vocal, very open with how she feels. I guess it is a fairly common dynamic among Samoan parents. Sometimes the opposite applies and the mum is the quiet one and the dad is the vocal one, but the Kaino combination is more typical.


I don’t think I ever saw Dad tired, but I saw the impact that bringing up six kids and doing casual work had on Mum. She often had a sore back from the work — bending over picking strawberries, for example. By contrast Dad, when he got home, would do some work around the house. He was all go. I don’t think either of them had a choice. They were renting, but having a house, having your own space in New Zealand, was huge for anyone coming from Samoa. Some people share houses with their relatives for years. Dad was proud of what he’d achieved, and determined to provide for his family as best he could.


We never went on holiday. My friends did, but it never occurred to me that ordinary people did until I met my wife and got to know her family. We’d sometimes go on day trips to the beach. I don’t think my parents had ever really been exposed to the idea that you might travel to a different place for a rest and a change of scene.


After all, in Samoa you didn’t have to go away. The beach is right there.


Looking back, my world was South Auckland and it was plenty big enough for me. I never went into Auckland City when I was growing up. Even Manukau City was a big day trip for us. It was about 45 minutes on the bus from Papakura to Manukau.


If we wanted to see the sights, we would usually go as far as Papakura town centre. What could downtown have that Papakura didn’t? I think the first time I went into the CBD the Sky Tower was being built. That makes it the mid-1990s and I must have been 12 or 13. I remember being as impressed by my first sight of One Tree Hill — there was a tree there, then — as I was by the city. That trip would also have been the first time I saw Karangahape Road, famous from way back due to its nightspots and its connection with the seedier side of life. I would often hear about this ‘K Road’ on the TV: here I was, finally seeing it for the first time when we drove along it. As for the Harbour Bridge and what lay beyond — it might as well have been a bridge to another country.


Reproduced with permission from Jerome Kaino: My Story with Patrick McKendry


Published by Penguin NZ RRP $40.00  Available nationwide