THE Reverend Robert Philp, a Church of Scotland missionary in Kenya who acted as interpreter during the trial of Jomo Kenyatta in 1952, has died, aged 95. Kenyatta, who later became his nation’s president, was charged with “managing and being a member” of Mau Mau, the bloody insurgency against British rule in Kenya. The trial (Kenyatta is depicted being led from jail) was held in a remote area amid great security and an atmosphere of extreme political tension. Although he knew English well, Kenyatta decided to speak only in his native language, Kikuyu.
The role of court translator was given to the archaeologist Louis Leakey, but his interpretations were continually challenged by defence counsel, and an exasperated Leakey finally walked out. Philp, who was born and raised among the Kikuyu people of central Kenya, and was known for his mastery of their complex language as well as for the authenticity of his accent, was appointed in his stead. In April 1953, Kenyatta was sentenced to seven years’ hard labour; he was in jail until 1959. Philp was the only child of a Scottish missionary doctor, the Reverend Dr Horace Philp, founder of Tumutumu hospital near Nyeri, in the foothills of Mount Kenya; his mother Mary, a Latin scholar, taught Kikuyu to new missionaries. Her son’s prowess in the language, however, derived from his upbringing as the only white child living among the Kikuyu people. Until the age of nine all his playmates were Kikuyu, and he grew up bilingual in Kikuyu and English.
He was sent to George Watson’s School in Edinburgh, and went on to read divinity at Edinburgh University. His curiosity and taste for adventure led him to explore Europe by motorcycle. He spent a year studying at the Budapest College of the Reformed Church of Hungary, and in 1937 returned to Kenya as a missionary. His first posting was to his birthplace, Tumutumu, where he lived and worked as a bachelor missionary and army chaplain throughout World War II. In 1964, he returned to Britain to marry Jeane Caddick, whom he had met at university, and they set up home at Tumutumu.
During the 1950s insurgency, Philp successfully interceded on behalf of some Kikuyu with the authorities. He also visited Kikuyu Christians living deep in the bush in what was dangerous Mau Mau territory. He also worked alongside Anglicans and Methodists as the first Presbyterian tutor at St Paul’s United Theological College at Limuru, preparing and equipping Africans to become ministers. Later, he became the first Church of Scotland missionary resident at Nakuru in the Rift Valley. In 1960, after 23 years as a second generation missionary, personal circumstances caused Philp reluctantly to resign and leave Kenya; he became a church minister at Stepps, near Glasgow. He retired in 1981, aged 69, and with his wife went to live in Leeds.
In 1988 he returned to his birthplace, Tumutumu, and discovered that he was still fluent in Kikuyu after 28 years in Britain. An old lady at Tumutumu exclaimed: “It’s Roberti! It’s our Roberti! He’s come home!”, and recalled the day 75 years earlier when, as a teenager, she had been invited into the Philps’ home by his mother to see the new baby. Jeane Philp died in 2005. He left instructions for his ashes to be buried in Kenya, among the Kikuyu people, because “after all, that is where I am from”.