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Letters Home reveal missionary highs and lows

Tropical ulcers, weevils, and revenge killings as well as mist-shrouded bush, the simple pleasure of a box of biscuits, and joy in sharing the Bible’s message of love were just some of the elements of life for early missionaries in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

In 1965 David and Marion Kitchingman and their 18 month old daughter Ginny left New Zealand to work for the Methodist Church in PNG’s remote southern Highlands.

For the following five years, Marion wrote weekly to her parents in Dunedin, where her father Rev Andrew Johnston was the minister at Mornington Methodist Church. After her parents died in the 1980s Marion discovered about 70 of those letters her mother had kept.

To help commemorate the recent centenary of New Zealand Methodist women’s formal support for missionary work Marion used her letters to tell the story of missionary life. She produced a one-woman play called ‘Letters Home’, written as though she is in the process of writing to her parents.

“After being approached by the Otago District MWF to write a centennial presentation, I toyed with different ideas before realising that nothing could be more relevant than my own story. I was myself one of those people who had been supported by these dedicated women back home.

“I benefited from the time, energy and love of those who wrote to me, sent parcels for our personal use, made sure our children had books and toys, and asked how they could help in the work of our mission station.

“Although it felt at times as though we had been transported in a time-warp machine thousands of years back in time, we were constantly reminded of the care and concern of dozens of women’s groups up and down New Zealand.”

The play consists of direct quotes from the letters. The performance is enhanced by visual aids – objects Marion used during her missionary work – that help bring to life the 1960s.

The first performance of ‘Letters Home’ was at the Methodist Women’s Fellowship convention in Otaki, October, 2002. Marion has since staged it 10 times. These include a performance for the World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women’s South Pacific Area Seminar at Lincoln University in January 2003 and one for the Association of Presbyterian Women in Oamaru in March 2003. Marion also read the play on Dunedin’s Radio Church over four successive Sundays in May 2003.

“Because my letters to my parents were often a means of letting off steam, they covered incidents we wouldn’t normally write about in newsletters to church groups. Missionaries were often told when writing to groups back home to make it personal and encouraging.

“That wasn’t always easy but in the main we did try to do that with church groups. However, in writing my play, nearly 40 years later, I decided to include some of the day to day niggles and frustrations.

“People seem to have appreciated the reality of the struggles. A friend wrote to me after a performance and said, ‘We really felt the excitement of those early days, your enthusiasm for the work, and then the terrible loneliness and isolation. You were brave to revisit those years.’

“This presentation is, of course, only my story. Others in similar situations coped in their own ways. ‘Letters Home’ is just one story of many. It is simply my experience of those years as a young wife and mother.”

Marion has written and performed two other dramas – a one-woman presentation of the life of Susanna Wesley and a one-woman presentation of the life of suffragist and WCTU campaigner Annie Jane Schnackenberg.

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Excerpts from ‘Letters Home’

There’s a joke doing the rounds at the moment. You might have heard it. A friend is visiting a missionary and when the friend retires to bed, the missionary says to him, “Now, if there’s anything at all you need, just let us know – and we’ll show you how to do without it.”

The old bread-making is coming along, apart from the weevils and rat droppings all through the flour! Every spoonful has to be sifted. And the weevil eggs are so tiny and white a lot of them get mixed in with the flour. But it’s amazing how you don’t worry about it when the choices are use it or there’s no bread.

David’s actually in jail today. He takes a service there most Sunday afternoons. Payback killings account for a lot of the men in jail. It’s a major part of the culture here. I kill someone in your family, you kill someone in mine, so I kill your cousin, and you kill my uncle and on and on and on. Can we ever hope to break through this? We have to try.