NAIROBI — Pope Francis arrived in Kenya’s capital on Wednesday evening for his first trip to Africa, a five-day tour that will take him to some of the world’s poorest communities and most intractable conflicts.
Francis will visit Kenya, Uganda and the war-torn Central African Republic during the crucial — and potentially dangerous — visit. The trip affords him an opportunity to speak directly to one of the world’s fastest-growing Catholic populations and reemphasize the central themes of his papacy: efforts to reduce global poverty, climate change and interreligious strife.
Not long after arriving here, the pontiff invoked those issues in a speech to Kenyan political and religious leaders.
“Violence, conflict and terrorism feed on fear, mistrust and the despair born of poverty and frustration,” he told an audience of 2,000, who frequently burst into applause.
Over the next two days in Kenya, he will find a vibrant, cosmopolitan African capital that is still struggling to raise the standard of living for its poorest residents. More than 40 percent of the country lives under the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
The pope’s visit comes as Kenya is embroiled in one of its biggest corruption scandals. Five top ministers were fired Tuesday on suspicion of stealing or mismanaging public funds.
Francis has been outspoken about the ills of corruption, which in July he deemed “the gangrene of society.” Many Kenyans hope that he will highlight the issue during his visit.
“The gap between the rich and the poor is growing here, and corruption is a major part of the problem,” the Rev. Chrisantus Ndaga, deputy secretary general of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa, said in an interview. “It’s the right time for a message of encouragement from the pope.” The association helped plan the pope’s visit.
In his Wednesday speech, Francis urged Kenya’s leaders to “work with integrity and transparency for the common good” and “promote responsible models of economic development.”
As the pope touched down in Nairobi, he was greeted by throngs of Kenyans waving, dancing and singing “Karibu Kenya, Papa,” or “Welcome to Kenya, Pope” in Swahili. The highway leading from the airport was lined with posters bearing images of the pontiff.
“Tears of joy as Pope Francis arrives in Kenya,” said the lead headline in Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper.
Some Kenyans suggested that the country’s top officials could learn from the pope’s modest style. He left the airport in a basic Honda sedan — “the type of car ordinarily used by any Kenyan,” the Daily Nation said.
Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, also alluded to the corruption problems plaguing his government while introducing the pope, saying that graft “sacrifices people and our environment in the pursuit of illegal profit.”
Many wonder whether the pope will speak about sexual or gender rights during his Africa trip, particularly in Uganda, where the government has tried to impose life terms for those convicted of “homosexual acts.” Although Francis is perceived by some to be more accepting of gay Catholics, experts say he is unlikely to discuss those issues at length.
Instead, the pontiff is expected to focus on interfaith matters, particularly the growing tensions between Christians and Muslims across Africa. Kenya has been hit particularly hard by al-Shabab, a Somalia-based Islamist extremist group that has carried out numerous attacks here. They include a 2013 assault on Nairobi’s Westgate mall that left 67 dead and an April attack on a university in eastern Kenya in which 147 people were killed.
On Thursday, Francis is scheduled to give a wide-ranging speech on the environment and climate change at the United Nations’ office in Nairobi.
But the focal point of his Africa trip appears to be the Central African Republic, where a war between Christians and Muslims has claimed more than 5,000 lives since 2013. The fighting there remains intense, and some security experts are surprised that Francis’s visit has not been canceled. It is the first time a pope has traveled to an active conflict zone.
There, Francis is scheduled to meet with Muslims at the central Koudougou mosque in Bangui, the capital. Driving through the city, he is likely to see some of the thousands who have been displaced by the most recent spasm of violence. Even U.N. camps have proven unsafe. Earlier this month, rebel fighters entered the Batangafo camp, firing weapons and setting huts on fire. About 5,500 people fled the camp to seek shelter elsewhere, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
For his part, though, Francis appeared unconcerned. Asked by reporters during his flight to Kenya whether he was worried about the security situation, he replied: “I’m more afraid of the mosquitoes.”