Kenyans hope papal visit will help foster peace and help turn economy around

By: VERAH OKEYO

It was the kind of reaction one might have expected to a pop star’s entry. That was the frenzied attention that soft-spoken Pope Francis drew when he walked into the United Nations headquarters in New York in September to address the UN General Assembly.

And going by the preparations that have been made in the country for his arrival this evening, the avalanche of blogs and newspaper articles, Kenyans will probably accord the Argentinian pontiff a similar reception.

More importantly, they seem interested in knowing not only about his office — he’s the only monarch with visible power remaining in the Western world — but what that authority can do to improve their socio-economic lot.

An opinion poll by research firm Infotrak indicates that 90 per cent of Kenyans are excited about his coming because of his populist persona.

His highly anticipated visit, which comes four months after that US President President Obama, is his first to Africa since he became pope.

Kenyans expect him to address a variety of issues, among them intolerance; the Global Peace Index 2014 ranked Kenya among the top five countries where religious intolerance had been the greatest source of terrorist attacks in the country.

Then there is homosexuality. While the pope takes a “soft” approach to homosexuals, the gay community has been the target of harsh verbal and occasional physical attacks in the country.

The Pope’s visit also presents an opportunity to scrutinise the link between the country’s religiosity and the manifestations of that religiosity, or lack thereof.

It is significant that Kenya is the first nation the pope is visiting on his first African tour, given the country’s role in the history of Pentecostalism and Christian revivals.

Indeed, in his book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, American scholar Philip Jenkins predicts that the global south — where Kenya lies — will be the headquarter of Christianity this century.

Since the introduction of Christianity in the Nineteenth Century, Kenya has been at the convergence of two very strong religions in the continent – Christianity and Islam, although it has remained predominantly Christian.

Interestingly, Kenyans are looking up to a figure from an institution in which many have lost faith. But that is understandable, given the unsavoury revelations about some of the most visible Christian clerics.

SKEPTICISM

This is the society Pope Francis is coming to address, people who believe in the authority he represents but view the local representatives of that authority with scepticism.

In the book, The Great Reformer Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, which describes the persona of the Argentinian, Ivereigh Austen, the Papal autobiographer writes: “This, ultimately, may be what Francis’ conservative critics find most disturbing: not his cooling on the culture wars but his self-demotion from Catholic monarch to something more like the chairman of a deliberative (if hardly democratic) body.”

Unlike the humble pope, who preaches inclusivity, Kenyan churches do not offer much to the poor, depressed or unemployed.

As cultural analyst Joyce Nyairo describes Kenyans in her book, Kenya at 50, they are a jua kali people, a name derived from the informal industry that uses scrap metal and modifies it for use.

Kenyans, she says, incorporate many foreign and local ideas and modify them to what subtly or profoundly suits them.

At the official level, the pope’s visit is considered a boon to the country’s image. Dr Karanja Kibicho, the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, says the visit will be a highly welcome addition to the dignitaries the country has hosted this year.

These meetings, he says, will boost the country’s socio-economic situation.

“We are on the offensive now to show the world the good in the country rather than reacting to right wrong images that are normally projected out there,” he offered.

Indeed, 2015 has been a year of paradoxes for Kenya’s tourism industry, one of the country’s main foreign exchange earners. While the country suffered terrorist attacks, such as the one on Garissa University, it has also hosted a number of high-profile, international meetings.

“Hosting such high flying meetings will show the world that Kenya is a good place to invest in,” Kibicho enthused.

Meanwhile, ordinary Kenyans also have their expectations.

The Infotrak study indicated that 24 per cent of non-Catholics would like the Pope to address corruption, a subject that the pope has never shied away from, with his preaching of inclusivity in society.

For instance, in his address to the UN General Assembly, he asked the more than 130 presidents present to, among many other things, take care of the environment and ensure equality in their nations.

The speech hinted at his disapproval of raw capitalism. “Yet today’s world presents us with many false rights and — at the same time — broad sectors which are vulnerable, victims of power badly exercised: for example, the natural environment and the vast ranks of the excluded. These sectors are closely interconnected and made increasingly fragile by dominant political and economic relationships. That is why their rights must be forcefully affirmed by working to protect the environment and by putting an end to exclusion.”

It is, therefore, significant that his visit comes at a time when there is a public outcry about massive corruption in the country and unequal distribution of wealth.

More than 65 per cent of Kenyans are concerned about what prescription the pope will give regarding the family, an institution that is struggling to maintain stability amid the pressures of modern living.

DISCUSSION ON MARRIAGE

A month after the UN meeting, the pope called together 270 bishops from around the world to the Vatican — the first such meeting after nearly 30 years — to discuss the church’s stand on marriage.

Despite p a spirited fight, after three weeks he failed to persuade the majority of the 270 bishops to “revamp” the church rule that forbids remarried Catholics from receiving holy communion.

The pope argued that the strict observations on marriage had failed to adapt to the new circumstances of modern living, which could lead to the congregants’ pain being ignored.

“Listen to the beat of the age,” he pleaded.

Not unexpectedly, Africans, who are deeply religious and conservative, supported the church’s rigid stand.

Austen categorises Africans, Eastern Europeans and some Americans as “beleaguered” in the debate on family.

In an interview with the British paper, The Guardian, on October 23, 2015, he said he had observed that this group believes that changing the church’s approach to gay and divorced people, or any other sexual relationship outside the confines of the church’s teaching, risks diluting its authority.

So it is not surprising that data from the Pew Research Centre, an American think-tank that researches on the intersection between religion and public life, show that more than 80 per cent of Kenyans disapprove of homosexuality, abortion, premarital sex and divorce.

The Catholic magisterium, the church’s official teaching, is followed by celibate bishops who, interestingly, have great influence on women’s reproductivity.

In Kenya, perhaps more than any other African country, the Catholic clergy’s legalistic obsession with reproduction stands in stark contrast to the pope’s more accommodative approach.

OBJECTION ABOUT VACCINE

Last year, the Ministry of Health’s campaign for tetanus vaccination was delayed after the church raised objections, claiming that the vaccine contained a substance that could affect women’s fertility.

The ministry’s campaign for a polio vaccine this year ran into a similar problem.

An agitated Director of Medical Services, Dr Nicholas Muraguri, asked the Catholic Church mid this year to disband its technical committee after a joint test revealed that the vaccinations were safe.

While decrying the time lost in the ministry’s vaccination schedule, Dr Muraguri acknowledged the Catholic Church’s potential to improve medical health seeking behaviour in the country.

“With all the followers, the Catholic church holds a great ability to inform positive change in the healthcare system in terms of attitude,” Dr Muraguri told media.

Indeed, it is thanks objections from religious quarters that the government has not legalised certain reproductive health services such as safe abortions.

Dr Muraguri’s concern was echoed by international media trainer and development communication consultant Melanie Cheary who said: “When you realise an organisation has that much power and influcence over people, you do not attack it; you collaborate with it”.

The Pope’s vocal position on climate change has rallied people all over the world on a subject that has long been left to scientists.

It is admirable that the pope has managed to rally the world on a subject in which scientific evidence and religion seem to agree.

This is because even the most educated people tend to ignore facts when the subject of discussion touches on their faith.

That is why religious Kenyans will not hear of abortion, and certain doctors will entertain conspiracy theories against a public health intervention that has been tested and proven to save lives such as immunisation.

Religion – and scholars in anthropology philosophy and theology have shown this — is immune to the standard units that we use to judge other aspects of our lives.

MEMORABLE QUOTES BY THE POPE

-Compiled by Ngare Kariuki

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

July 2013, on a flight from Brazil when asked about gay priests.

“I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to allow all priests for the Jubilee Year to absolve of the sin of abortion those who procure it and who also seek forgiveness.”

September 2015, announcement allowing priests to offer forgiveness to women who had procured abortions.

“But with regards to the ordination of women, the church has spoken and says no . . . That door is closed.”

July 2013, on the ordination of women.

“You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity.”

January 2015, in response to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris, France.

“It is not true that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits.”

January 2015, on a flight from The Philippines on the poor having too many children.

“Opting not to have children at all is a selfish choice. A society that views children above all as a worry, a burden, a risk, is a depressed society.”

February 2015, after the “rabbit” remark created controversy.

“A Christian who does not protect creation, who does not let it grow, is a Christian who does not care about the work of God; that work that was born from the love of God for us. And this is the first response to the first creation: protect creation, make it grow.”

February 2015, speaking on environmental conservation during morning Mass.

“Let no one use God as a shield while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression. May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights of every man and woman.”

September 2014, during a visit to Albania.

“God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life. Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

October 2014, on the controversy regarding the origins of life on earth.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION