Family retraces father's history in Samoa

The children of an Australian Fruit Inspector have returned to Samoa after 52 years to find out more about the work their father did and the experiences he had working in Apia in the mid-1960's.

Jim Smith, who passed away in 1997, was 47 years old at the time when the Australian Government’s Department of Agriculture deployed him to Samoa to help control and eradicate bunchy top – a banana disease that was ruining the banana plantations. 

Upon the request of the Samoan Government, the late Mr. Smith arrived in Samoa on June 3, 1965 on a two-year contract with his wife, Flo and three youngest daughters, Glenda, Patricia and Janine.

In a book he wrote for his family, he detailed in Chapter nine titled “Samoa” the work he had done during his two-year stint working with the local Department of Agriculture, including his cultural experiences, and everyday life in the islands. 

“A Samoan called Misa was Jim’s write-hand man and interpreter, he went everywhere Jim went. Nothing could be done in a village without a ‘kava’ ceremony and a lot of talk with chiefs in a fale (house). Jim had to rely entirely on Misa, and sometimes wondered whether he was getting the right message across if Misa was telling him exactly of their feelings,” the book stated. 

“The talks were long and boring from Jim’s point of view, and painful as he had to sit on the floor with legs crossed for hours. The kava ceremony took place first and was long enough. The recipient said ‘manuia’ and gulped it down. It tasted yuck at first, but one got used to it.”

But the literary record of their father’s experiences was not enough for Mr. Smith’s children, as they yearned to visit the island and experience first-hand the culture and environment that their father talked so highly of. 

The group of 17 who travelled to Samoa included nine of Mr. Smith’s 10 children, their partners and their children. 

“We’ve always talked about it as a family to come to Samoa so it’s been 52 years and we finally made it to Samoa, 17 of us are here now,” Rob Smith, the fourth eldest, told the Sunday Samoan. 

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According to Rob, their efforts to try and get information on who to contact about their father’s work before they arrived in Samoa was unsuccessful. 

“We’ve been trying to find out more of the banana work he did, but we haven’t got much of it. We only went to the Department of Agriculture. We just wanted to show appreciation to the work he did here in Samoa,” Nevel, the fifth eldest, added. 

Rob told the Sunday Samoan his father spent a couple of nights at the Aggie Grey’s in Apia when he first arrived, before being showed his house at the Centipede Alley. 

“We only came for three or four weeks of holiday the whole time he was here. Nevel and I had to go to boarding school in Australia, it’s very vague what we know because we were only 13 or 14 years old at the time,” Rob said. 

“Our three younger sisters went to school here, from 1965 - 1967. They do not know much as well because they were so young, the youngest, Janine, was five years old at the time.” 

Rob said his father’s work also involved trying to help each village grow their own banana plantation which they can manage. 

He added his father was asked to renew his contract for another term, which he agreed to, but he had to first visit his family in Australia. 

“He went and when he came back, they changed all his staff, the structures he had in place, so he said you can’t do this, you’re undoing all the good work we’ve done in two years, so he didn’t renew his contract and he returned to Australia,” Rob added.  

Nevel said his father was happy to renew his contract, but the changes that were done in his absence compelled him refuse the offer.  

“Samoa doesn’t seem to have a very strong banana industry at the moment, maybe because they didn’t take his advice on what should be done, is the reason the banana industry is not that strong.”

Despite all these, the family has thoroughly enjoyed their trip and plan visits to some of the places their father wrote about such as the “Virgin’s Grave” in Savai’i. They leave Samoa tomorrow morning and hope to return someday and possibly retrieve more information on their father’s work.

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