Pontiff’s modesty leaves mark on a nation used to showoffs

Pope Francis’s signature humility came into display in Kenya last week from the moment he touched down at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to begin his maiden papal visit to Africa.

The Pontiff left the airport in a little 2013 Honda Ballade Elegance that was almost unrecognisable in the sea of fancy sports utility vehicles (SUVs) of his host President Uhuru Kenyatta’s motorcade.

Prior to the flight from Rome and while airborne, the head of the Roman Catholic Church chatted with the journalists accompanying him.

“There are bad people and there are good people. I am only worried about mosquitoes,” Pope Francis responded to a reporter’s question, shrugging off the insecurity concerns in the wake of terrorism attacks in Kenya and political violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) which has taken on a religious angle.

“On board the plane to Africa the Pope jokes with journalists about security fears saying: “The only thing I am worried about are the mosquitos,” tweeted Christopher Lamb, the Rome correspondent of The Tablet, who was also accompanying the Pontiff.

As he signed the visitors book upon arrival at JKIA, the Pope reflected for some seconds then wrote: “May Almighty God abundantly bless the Republic of Kenya and grant peace and joy to all her children and all her elderly.”

True to character, Pope Francis rode across town to State House with the window rolled down, occasionally waving to the cheering crowds that lined up on Mombasa Road and Uhuru Highway — in stark contrast to the wound-up dark, tinted windows common with VIPs.

The modest motorcade was led by his security detail that comprised “common” vehicles that would not ordinarily feature in a head of state’s convoy — a Honda, Toyota Allion … sedans locally associated with the lower middle-class.

Actually, the state security escort vehicles were more glamorous than his own chase car. A new Allion costs not more than $10,000 while most of the presidential escort cars are top-of-the-range SUVs that would set you back by not less than $50,000.

At State House the Pope planted an olive tree as a sign of peace. Addressing the nation, he asked Kenyan leaders to take care of the needs of the poor and protect the country’s abundant natural resources for future generations, in line with his theme of environmental conservation, social justice and peace.

“The Kenyan people have a strong appreciation of these God-given treasures and are known for a culture of conservation, which does you honour,” the Pope said. “The grave environmental crisis facing our world demands an ever greater sensitivity to the relationship between human beings and nature.”

The Pontiff’s strong focus on environment and climate change comes days before world leaders gather in Paris with the hope of coming up with an agreement to combat climate change. 

The Pope said terrorism and violence are fed by “fear, mistrust and the despair born of poverty and frustration.”

On peace and justice, the Pope stressed that the leadership has an obligation to exercise a just stewardship of the gifts they have received.

“These values are deeply rooted in the African soul,” he said. “In a world which continues to exploit rather than protect our common home, they must inspire the efforts of national leaders to promote responsible models of economic development.”

Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi later said the papal entourage met with 11 members of the Kenyan Cabinet, led by Environment Secretary Prof Judi Wakhungu.

“The discussions with the Kenyan ministers centred on the importance of the 2015 Paris climate change talks,” said Fr Lombardi.

“The theme of the Pope’s visit in Kenya is climate change and how it is linked to social justice.

“He will also stress the need for leaders in African countries to serve people, and also touch on corruption.”

While the overarching theme of the Pontiff’s African trip is peace and reconciliation, his time in Kenya and Uganda would also be focused on efforts to combat poverty and protect the environment. 

In his meeting in Nairobi on Thursday with religious leaders from different faiths, he emphasised the Church’s commitment to ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue set out at the Second Vatican Council, which is rooted in universality of God’s love.

“The ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue is not optional but essential for a wounded world,” the Pope said. “It is my hope that our time together may be a sign of the Church’s esteem for the followers of all religions.”

Recalling the terrorist attacks at Westgate Mall in 2013 and Garissa University this year, he said God’s “holy name must never be used to justify hatred and violence.”

He said: “It is sad that young people are being radicalised in the name of religion to sow discord and fear and to tear at the fabric of society. It is important that we are seen as prophets of peace, peacemakers who invite others to live in peace, harmony and mutual respect.”