Pope Francis in Africa

Msafiri’s business columnist Nkem Ifejika considers how this month’s historic visit by Pope Francis will benefit all Kenyans and not just the third of the population who share his religion

PopeFrancisPopes are, at their most unpopular (if such a thing existed), revered figures. And at their most popular, they’re Pope Francis; they’re rock stars. He has engendered goodwill towards himself in a manner reserved for very few religious leaders. His pronouncements on mankind’s duty to help the poor and disaffected have been enough to lift him above previous pontiffs. While the church’s stance on many issues has not shifted, his tone has been more conciliatory and less judgemental. His mantra is that mercy is the most powerful message of Jesus Christ. Everywhere Pope Francis has gone he has received a rapturous welcome. From the crowds who attended mass in Cuba to the family that drove all the way from Argentina to see him in the United States. And when he lands at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on 27 of November his reception will be no less rousing.

Kenya in the spotlight
Kenya is becoming accustomed to being in the global spotlight – from President Obama’s visit for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in July to topping the table at the World Athletics Championships in June (the first African country to do so), and now hosting arguably the world’s best-known religious figure. Kenya is a hotbed of feelgood-ness right now. With President Obama and Pope Francis visiting this year, the message is simple: it’s okay to go to Kenya.

At an estimated thirty-three per cent of the population, the Roman Catholic Church in Kenya is the single biggest religious group in the country. There are fewer Muslims, and the Protestant congregation is represented by several different denominations, including the Anglican Church. Prominent members of the Catholic Church include President Uhuru Kenyatta himself, who surprised a congregation in Mombasa when he attended mass on an August morning. The faith has a deep history in Kenya. The first missions arrived in the second half of the 19th century. Pope Francis will not be communing with strangers.

Kenyan Catholics such as Father Joseph Nyamunga, usually a teacher at a catholic seminary in Nairobi, see a Pope who’ll be Kenyan for the duration of his stay, “[sharing] the Gospel message with his bishops at local level, focusing on the collegial sense of the universal church.”

The words he used were, ‘thinking Romanly but acting Kenyanly’.

Pope Francis’s visit is a big deal because it’s not only the Kenyan faithful who’ll receive blessings, but the wider Kenyan society. Father Joseph uses a Kenyan saying to illustrate the point, “Mgeni aje mweyegi apone,” (the presence of a visitor in a home is a blessing to all the householders).

Tourism in Kenya
It’s been a tough couple of years for the Kenyan tourism industry. Militant attacks in Nairobi, and on the beach resorts of Mombasa and other coastal towns have caused a reduction in visits. Immediately after the Garissa University College attacks in April, bookings 600km away at coastal hotels were being cancelled.

However, many tourism operators suggest that while attacks in themselves are damaging, it’s often the travel advisories issued by foreign governments that are the final nail in the coffin. Once a country such as the United Kingdom issues a warning to its citizens to avoid non-essential travel, there’s a drop-off in bookings. But even worse for tourism business, those brave enough to defy government recommendations find it almost impossible to get insurance if they want to travel to perceived hotspots.

At the time of writing, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all but essential travel to areas along the Somalia border, and down the coast to Malindi. The coastal city of Mombasa is spared, and with it the beach resorts.

“It took 14 good months before it was lifted, and it was a difficult period,” says Mohammed Hersi, a veteran of the Kenyan tourism industry. He’s the CEO of Heritage Hotels, and is also chairman of the Kenya Coast Tourism Association. “The moment you bring in a high-profile visitor, that alone showcases Kenya as a peaceful country. We are in the media for all the good reasons and not the bad, as it used to be.”

It’s a view echoed by Father Joseph: “It’s time for Kenya to shine and wake up to be counted on the global stage. The whole world will be looking at Kenya because it’s the Pope’s first visit to Africa.” He adds: “Kenya has been known for wrong things. At last we can be blessed to get back to the dreams of our forefathers.”

The Kenyan Tourism Board is also hoping for a fillip from the pontiff’s visit. It’s worth remembering that apart from leading the global Catholic Church, Pope Francis is the sovereign at Vatican City. The city state sits within the larger city of Rome, and the Pope is part of wider Italian culture. Italy is the twelfth-largest economy in the world, something not to be sniffed at. The Kenyan Tourism Board has its eye on this market.

Tourism in Kenya makes up 11 per cent of GDP, and is also responsible for a similar proportion of jobs in the country. It’s easy to see why visits such as  that of Pope Francis are important in changing the narrative about Kenya.

The ability of Kenyans to take advantage of an opportunity was clear for all to see in July during President Obama’s visit. What must have been a very rare commodity here became a bestseller – the American flag. T-shirts with President Obama’s face were printed; billboards were erected in honour of his homecoming. One can expect a similar enthusiasm for Pope Francis.

Kenyans will not just be looking at the pecuniary benefits of the pontiff’s visit, but also his message. Some of the themes that have defined his papacy will no doubt be brought to the fore. When he visited Turkey in November 2014 he preached religious tolerance and dialogue between faith communities. As al-Shabab and other militant groups have tried to rend asunder Kenya’s longstanding culture of tolerance, such a message from the Pope would resonate.

Father Joseph expects the Pope to “…share the gospel with the families affected by terrorism, youths who have lost hope, and the forgotten ones in our society.” But he also goes further: “…with peace initiatives in the region – South Sudan, Congo, Somalia, inter-religious dialogue.” The Pope’s remit would easily match that of the American president or the Secretary General of the United Nations.

If past form is anything to go by, Pope Francis will talk about issues of Islamist extremism. After the Garissa University College attack in April he met Kenyan bishops at the Vatican and, in a written statement to them, urged them to redouble their efforts to promote peace among religions, “In this way you will be able to offer a more unified and courageous denunciation of all violence, especially that committed in the name of God.”

During his own visit, President Obama ruffled a few feathers when he broached the topic of homosexuality during a press conference with president Uhuru Kenyatta. Pope Francis might be viewed as ‘liberal’ in the West, however, that description should be tempered with ‘for a Catholic’.

He hasn’t suddenly jettisoned two thousand years of Roman Catholic teaching to endorse gay marriage, divorce, and artificial contraception. Pope Francis’s mantra appears to be one of tolerance, forgiveness and an understanding of the modern world as it is. These understandings include: while not accepting gay marriage, acknowledging that criminalising homosexuality is extreme; that families break up and withholding communion from them might not be wise; and that it’s impractical for people to have children as if they had bottomless pockets.

In that sense, the pontiff’s views mostly align with those of the general Kenyan public. If there’s anywhere a difference might exist, it could be in decriminalising homosexuality. If the Pope does advise this, LGBT rights activists would have scored a victory.

• Pope Francis is the first Pope from outside Europe in over a thousand years
• He cooks his own food
• When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires he rode on public transport
• He is the first Francis and chose it to honour St Francis of Assisi who was known for his charity and benevolence to animals

A year to remember
This is a year many Kenyans will remember. And for all the right reasons. “Do you remember when the President of the United States, Barack Obama, returned home, to the birthplace of his father? Or when Pope Francis, leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, chose Kenya as the first African country he would visit?” “But of course, 2015, how can anybody forget?” It’s easy to imagine such a conversation playing out in the decades to come.