“Experience shows that violence, conflict and terrorism feed on fear, mistrust, and the despair born of poverty and frustration,” Pope Francis said in his first speech in Africa, shortly after arriving in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, on Nov. 25.
Francis knows there is much poverty in this city of over 4 million people, and a great gap between rich and poor both here and in other parts of Kenya. And so with his usual directness he zoned in on this grave problem when he met the president, state authorities and the diplomatic corps at state house, shortly after his arrival in the country of 45 million people.
“Ultimately," he said, "the struggle against these enemies of peace and prosperity must be carried on by men and women who fearlessly believe in, and bear honest witness to, the great spiritual and political values which inspired the birth of the nation.”
Francis’ use of the words ‘honest witness’ was no accident, as he knows that corruption is widespread in this land. It is a cancer in the body of this young democracy that gained independence from Great Britain in 1963.
Speaking clearly in English, in a speech that was repeatedly interrupted by applause, Francis encouraged the cultural, political and economic leaders of this country – many of whom are Catholic, including 50 percent of the members of parliament – “to work with integrity and transparency for the common good, and to foster a spirit of solidarity at every level of society.”
Many of those leaders were present at the welcome ceremony, attended by 3,000 people and the diplomatic corps, in the state house which was hosted by President Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the father of the nation. It began with the traditional military honors and a 21 cannon salute, and was followed by a private meeting between the pope and the president, and a prayer with Kenyatta’s family.
“We welcome you to Kenya, as we welcome you to Africa,” the president said to warm applause. Kenyatta went on to affirm his determination to wage war on corruption and asked Francis to pray that he may succeed. Next, he praised the major contribution of the Catholic Church to the nation through its 8,000 schools, five colleges and one university, and told the pope, “I, too, am a product of Catholic education.”
He then referred to the divisions in the country that threaten peace and stability. He blamed colonialism for some of these divisions because the colonial powers created states artificially across ethnic lines. Today, he said, it’s necessary to overcome these and other divisions that give rise to violence. He affirmed that the priority now is to foster dialogue between faiths and between ethnic communities, and he told Francis, “Your presence galvanizes these efforts for peace and for integral development.” This comment drew strong applause from the audience. The president concluded by praising Francis for his commitment to the protection of our common home, and he again provoked appreciative applause when he linked the pope to the late Wangari Muta Maathai, the famous Kenyan woman who won the Nobel Prize for Peace for her work for the environment and sustainable development.
In his speech, which Fr. Lombardi said contained a message for the entire continent, Pope Francis asked the Kenyan authorities and the leaders in particular “to show genuine concern for the needs of the poor, the aspirations of the young and a just distribution of the natural and human resources with which the Creator has blessed your country.” He assured them that the Catholic community in this land would continue to make its contribution through its educational efforts and charitable works.
Earlier, Francis acknowledged that as a young sovereign state, Kenya like other countries in Africa, is struggling to build a democracy based on “the solid foundations of mutual respect, dialogue and cooperation, a multiethnic society which is truly harmonious, just and inclusive.”
“Kenya is a young and vibrant nation, a richly diverse society which plays a significant role in the region,” the pope said. Indeed, over 70 percent of Kenyans are under the age of 30, and Francis reminded the authorities that “they are the nation’s most valuable resource” and called on them “to protect them, to invest in them and to offer them a helping hand.”
Kenya, he said, is also a country “blessed not only with immense beauty, in its mountains, rivers and lakes, its forests, savannahs and semi-deserts, but also by an abundance of natural resources.” He praised the people of this land for truly appreciating “these God-given treasures” and for their “culture of conservation.”
In this context, Pope Francis went on to speak about “the grave environmental crisis facing our world.” It is a topic that he is sure to return to in these days, and one which is of particular relevance given that the United Nations summit on climate change opens in Paris in the coming days. In actual fact, a Kenyan government delegation discussed this with a Vatican delegation, that included Cardinals Parolin and Turkson, while the pope and president met.
Francis, in his speech, told the Kenyan authorities that the environmental crisis “demands an ever greater sensitivity to the relationship between human beings and nature.” He emphasized “our responsibility” to pass on “the beauty of nature in its integrity” to future generations, and “our obligation to exercise a just stewardship of the gifts we have received.” He drew enthusiastic applause when he noted that “these values are deeply rooted in the African soul” and said that “in a world which continues to exploit rather then protect our common home” these values should also “inspire the efforts of national leaders to promote responsible models of economic development.”
Drawing on his recent encyclical, Francis emphasized “the clear link” that exists “between the protection of nature and the building of a just and equitable social order.” Indeed, he said, “there can be no renewal of our relationship with nature, without a renewal of humanity itself.”
He told the Kenyan authorities that “when societies experience divisions, whether ethnic, religious or economic” then “all men and women of good will are called to work for reconciliation and peace, forgiveness and healing.”
He reminded them that the building of “a sound democratic order” demands “strengthening cohesion and integration, tolerance and respect for others,” and said “the pursuit of the common good must be a primary goal.”
As mentioned earlier, he emphasized the importance of this work for the developmeent, stability and peace of the country by drawing attention to the fact that “violence, conflict and terrorism” – the enemies of peace and prosperity – “feed on fear, mistrust, and the despair born of poverty and frustration.”
The Argentine pope concluded his speech by thanking the people for the warm welcome they had given on this his first ever visit to Africa, and then said in Swahili, “Mungu abariki Kenya! God bless Kenya!”
The crowd went ecstatic and with great smiles on their faces, they applauded vigorously.
A very happy Pope Francis waved them farewell and then, despite the heavy rain, drove among cheering crowds to the nunciature, a distance of five miles, for dinner and a well deserved rest.
President Kenyatta had welcomed him at the airport, where ululating African women and a traditional dancer greeted him as he stepped for the first time on African soil.
Crowds, too, had lined the streets as he drove from the airport to the state house, amidst extraordinary security measures. There are no less than 10,000 troops in the city to ensure his visit goes without mishap.
Tomorrow an enormous crowd is expected when he celebrates his first Mass in African at the Nairobi university campus, though that crowd may be less if the heavy rains continue.
Before concluding this report, it is worth mentioning that Francis is in great form and clearly enjoying his visit. On the seven-hour flight from Rome to Nairobi he told the 74 journalists accompanying him, including America’s Vatican correspondent, “I come with joy to meet the Kenyans, Ugandans and the brothers in the Central African Republic.” He thanked them for their important work in bringing the news of his visit to people across the world and prayed that it may bring “spiritual and material fruits.” He then greeted each one individually, with smiles and much humor, and when one of them raised the question of the threats against him, and the risks associated with this trip, Francis reflected for a moment and then with a broad smile quipped: “The only threat is from the mosquitos!”