By Christopher Lamb,
Special to The Tablet
NAIROBI, Africa – “The only thing I am worried about are the mosquitos, have you brought your spray?” Pope Francis joked with reporters on board the flight to Africa today.
He was on board the specially chartered Alitalia papal plane from Rome to Nairobi for his first visit to Africa, a continent he has never been to before.
His joke relates to the fact that during his trip he plans to travel to the Central African Republic (CAR), a country that has been ravaged by violence. The conflict has been focused between Seleka Muslim rebels and the Anti-Balaka Christian militia: CAR is a war zone being held together by almost 12,000 United Nations peacekeepers.
While many would caution against such a visit, this Pope is someone willing to take risks. After all, his namesake St Francis of Assisi was not just a man of the poor but was also a man of peace. During the crusades St Francis travelled to Egypt to meet Sultan Malik Al-Kamil of Egypt, nephew of the Muslim warrior Saladin, in an attempt to bring about reconciliation.
During his time in the CAR, Francis will open the holy door of the Cathedral in Bangui anticipating the Jubilee Year of Mercy. The door in Bangui cathedral will be opened before any door in Rome showing.
Along with the CAR visit, which takes place at the end of the trip, the Pope will be in Kenya and Uganda.
He arrived in Nairobi this afternoon and addressed the President, Uhuru Kenyatta, and government leaders.
While one of the most stable African countries Kenya has suffered a number of terrorist attacks from Islamic militants. In April 147 people were killed by members of Al-Shabab at Garissa University. In his opening speech the Pope said that terrorism and violence “feed on fear, mistrust, and the despair born by poverty and frustration.”
Building a more peaceful world, in other words, cannot be done without solving the problems associated with poverty.
The same can be said for protecting the environment which needs to be done alongside building a “more just and equitable social order.”
This is a key theme of Laudato Si’ Francis ecological encyclical and will be stressed once again during a speech to the United Nations in Nairobi on Tuesday. The next day the Pope will visit the Jesuit run parish of St Joseph the Worker in Kangemi, home to 100,000 of Kenya’s poorest people. There are approximately 2.5 million slum dwellers in about 200 settlements in Nairobi. They represent 60 per cent of the Nairobi population and occupy just six per cent of the land.
Poverty, peace and the environment: they are all linked in Francis’ vision of how to make an increasingly unstable world a more secure place.
And in the countries he is visiting in Africa he is likely to have a captive audience. According to Pew Research, there are more than 170 million Catholics living in sub-Saharan Africa with the number of Christians expected to double between 2010 and 2050.
All of the countries have sizeable Catholic populations. In Uganda, in 2010, the number of Catholics numbered 14 million in 2010, making up over 40 per cent of the population; in Kenya the figure stands at 9 million which is 22 per cent of the population; in CAR it is 1.3 million which is 29 per cent of the population.
We are in for one of the most interesting trips of the pontificate so far.