Some Kenyans Want the Pope to Help Fight the 'Devil' of Corruption

Around 300,000 people braced rain and mud to see Pope Francis give his first official mass in Africa today. Kenya is the first stop in a three-country tour.

by Sally Hayden
Nov 26 2015, 6:35pm

Photo by Daniel Dal Zennaro/EPA

Kenya declared a national holiday and "day of prayer and reflection" on Thursday as hundreds of thousands of people braced the rain and trekked through mud to see Pope Francis deliver mass on the second day of his first official African visit.

A total of 300,000 people attended the service at the University of Nairobi, according to Kenyan police chief Japheth Koome. This was notably fewer than the 1 million that were originally expected to turn out.

The leader of the Catholic Church used the opportunity to test his few words of Swahili, pronouncing: "God bless you, God bless Kenya." He also told the crowd to resist practices which "hurt or demean women," and spoke out against abortion, telling his followers not to "threaten the life of the innocent unborn"

The visit marks a recognition by the 78-year-old pope of the importance of the African continent in the continuation of the church.

He joins a line of Catholic leaders who have prioritized visiting Africa. In 1969, Pope Paul VI named the continent a "new homeland" for Jesus Christ. While the number of practicing Catholics declines elsewhere in the world, Africa now has more than 200 million Catholics — up from just over 50 million in 1980 — and this figure is expected to double over the next 35 years.

Francis was greeted warmly by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his wife Margaret.

Kenyatta said that in Kenya the Catholic Church has "long been a partner of the state." He added that, "Kenya's present combines great opportunity with grave challenges — challenges that have their parallels in those facing the church."

Meanwhile, Francis spoke about the importance of peace, religious tolerance, climate change, and social cohesion. "Kenya and the Vatican will stand together to preach the message of peace," Francis said in advance of the visit.

Related: Death Toll Rises to 147 After Al Shabaab Gunmen Attack Kenyan University

However, the church's role in Kenya hasn't been without controversy. In August, Catholic bishops there called for a boycott of polio vaccinations. Last February, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops released a communique claiming that women were being rendered infertile by WHO and UNICEF-funded vaccinations.

Boniface Mwangi, a human rights campaigner and anti-corruption activist, told VICE News he feels the pope's visit is a positive thing for Kenya. "There is a devil that lives in Kenya, and that devil is corruption," he said.

In Kenya, "religious leaders have a very big influence on what we think and what we do. We claim we are a Christian nation. We are hoping that the motives of the pope influence the people," Mwangi said, adding that Francis' visit could easily be more influential than that of US President Barack Obama earlier this year.

"We have a bigger problem with corruption than terrorism or anything else. The lack of security, the lack of medicine in hospitals, all those things are the product of corruption. We have very high taxes—– but the majority goes to political salaries."

On Monday, Kenyan president Kenyatta met with online ridicule after he declared corruption a national security threat and something that is "shameful and dishonorable." Critics dismissed this as rhetoric, with some even linking it to the pope's visit.

Mwangi said these issues may be interlinked, but Francis still has the ability to exert influence on the issue. "If the pope tells him to change then [Kenyatta] will, because that word comes directly from God," Mwangi said.

In recent years, Kenya has experienced a spate of terrorist attacks, usually perpetrated by Islamist al-Shabaab militants based in Somalia.

In April, 147 people died after al-Shabaab militants stormed a university in Garissa. In the widely covered 2013 Westgate mall attacks, at least 67 people were killed after gunmen went on a shooting spree in Nairobi.

These attacks are often said to be a result of religious intolerance. However, Mwangi called these judgments unfair. "Kenya has no problem with religious intolerance at all… Even when people are killed in a church or in a university this country is not divided along religious lines because we are stronger together."

Mwangi didn't attend Thursday's mass, though he did watch it on TV.

"It's been a breath of fresh air from the normal politics of corruption. I think he is a role model to many people, believes and non-believers. Not just because of the religion but because of his lifestyle."

"I think that he's the most approachable, reachable pope in the history of the Catholic church," he concluded.

Nerima Wako, a Kenyan blogger, appeared slightly more skeptical. She told VICE News that the Pope's visit basically marked a holiday for Kenyans. "He advocates for things several Kenyans fully support, but implementation is another challenge. Kenyans are used to hot air, we get excited, tweet and back to business as usual."

Pope Francis will be spending Friday morning in Nairobi's Kangemi slum before traveling to Uganda. He is then due to finish his trip in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Related: We Spoke to One of the Cardinals Who Opposed the Church Welcoming Gay People