Pope rallies Kenya to the fight against poverty and exclusion

Pope Francis stayed on his message of social justice as the surest way to stable societies when he delivered his first Homily on Kenyan soil.

The Pontiff, who unlike the majority of the world’s leaders, sees the plague of intolerance and hatred eating humanity as the product of socio-economic injustice, called on Kenya to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, arguing that inequality is the source of ethnic and religious conflicts.

Speaking during the second day of his African tour, Pope Francis urged Kenyans to curb the growth of a materialistic culture that is not only leading to the destitution of millions but also causing dangerous social divisions.

“We are called to resist practices which foster arrogance in men, hurt or demean women, and threaten the life of the innocent unborn. We are called to respect and encourage one another, and to reach out to all those in need,” he said.

The message, which was delivered during a mass at the University of Nairobi, was particularly relevant for Kenya where poverty continues to inflict the lives of millions and inequality continues to grow.

The United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI), published last year, for instance, found that Kenya’s wealth remains concentrated in the hands of a small segment of the population, placing the country among the world’s most unequal societies.

The report says the incomes of Kenya’s richest 20 per cent of the population rose steadily in the past decade to stand at 11 times more than the total incomes of the poorest 20 per cent.

Great values of Africa

The UN ranked Kenya at position 147 globally, saying that each of Kenya’s 42 million citizens would earn Sh189,624 ($2,158) annually were the total income to be distributed equally.

Pope Francis spoke to that reality with a plea to Kenyan people to “let the great values of Africa’s traditions, the wisdom and truth of God’s word, and the generous idealism of youth” guide them in working to shape a society that is just, inclusive and respectful of human dignity.

“May you always be concerned for the needs of the poor, and reject everything that leads to prejudice and discrimination, for these things, we know, are not of God,” the Pontiff said.

The message was a continuation of the one he delivered during his meeting with senior government officials, the diplomatic corps, civil society groups and bishops at State House, Nairobi where he urged Kenyan leaders to promote responsible models of economic development.

“I encourage you to work with integrity and transparency for the common good, and to foster a spirit of solidarity at every level of society,” the Pope said, even as he pleaded with his audience to show genuine concern for the needs of the poor, the aspirations of the young, and a just distribution of natural and human resources.  

Kenya has since independence 54 years ago grappled with the challenges of inequality, tribalism and corruption, which have been linked to mass impoverishment of a large segment of its population, intolerance and social strife.

Extreme disparity between the rich and poor was partly blamed for the post-election violence in 2007 and 2008 that nearly consumed the country.

The violent clashes, which resulted in more than 1,000 deaths and displacement of about 600,000, is estimated to have cost the economy at least Sh100 billion.

Poverty and exclusion have been linked to the radicalisation of Kenyan youth by Islamist groups such as Somalia’s Al-Shabaab and it remains to be seen whether the country’s leadership will heed the Pontiff’s warning and commit to finding economic solutions to the many challenges — including insecurity — that comes from religious and ethnic extremism.

“In building a sound democratic order, strengthening cohesion and integration, tolerance and respect for others, the pursuit of the common good must be a primary goal,” Pope Francis said, warning that violence, conflict and terrorism feed on fear, mistrust, and the despair born of poverty and frustration.

Thousands of people gathered at the University of Nairobi grounds and the nearby Central Park to participate in the Papal mass.

Many of those who travelled from across the country had arrived at the grounds as early as 3 a.m. and waited for hours till the mass started at 10 a.m.

Braving the rains and inconvenience of closed roads within the city centre they listened to the mass which was partly celebrated in Latin. Pope Francis’ message of peace and reconciliation brought together the leaders from both sides of the political divide who attended the service in one accord.

Former president Mwai Kibaki, former vice-presidents Moody Awori and Kalonzo Musyoka, and former prime minister Raila Odinga, joined President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto along with other  government officials in celebrating the one-and-a-half-hour mass.