NAIROBI, Kenya — Pope Francis is known for his humility, but many Kenyans still could not believe what they saw him do when he arrived in Nairobi on Wednesday: He drove in from the airport in a little gray Honda.
The Kenyan bigwigs in the official motorcade from the airport rode in polished Mercedes and fancy four-by-fours, but the pope waved to the crowds from the back seat of what one Kenyan newspaper dubbed a “lowly miniature Honda car.”
“His ride was the kind of car Kenya’s affluent would not even accept in the exclusive membership clubs or the leafy gated communities,” a Kenyan newspaper, The Standard, said within minutes of the pope’s arrival.
Nairobi is the first stop on a three-nation tour, his first visit to Africa as pope, that will also take Francis to Uganda and the Central African Republic. The pope said he wanted to spread a message of peace and reconciliation.
He arrived in Kenya at a time when public confidence in the government is plummeting, the economy is ailing, ethnic tensions are rising and corruption has spiraled out of control. Many Kenyans are hoping that Francis can lift their spirits.
“What’s the mood?” said Bishop Anthony Muheria. “It’s electric.”
The 78-year-old pontiff is going to have a busy five days in Africa. His schedule is packed with meetings, red-carpet receptions, arrival ceremonies, farewell ceremonies and a Mass on Thursday for as many as one million people.
Kenyans are fed up with the excesses of their political class — five government ministers were fired this week in connection with allegations of graft — and many said they hoped the pope would talk about it.
Francis did not address the subject directly in his short, upbeat speech Wednesday night at State House, Kenya’s equivalent of the White House. But he did say, to a burst of applause: “The Gospel tells us that from those to whom much has been given, much will be demanded. In that spirit, I encourage you to work with integrity and transparency for the common good.”
More than other recent popes, Francis has cast himself as a champion of the poor. As a cardinal in Buenos Aires, he rode a public bus to work and often walked in the city’s slums.
Africa is by far the world’s poorest continent, and many Kenyans are touched that Francis plans to spend Friday morning in the Kangemi slum, a huge informal settlement of flimsy metal shacks, broken dreams and open sewage trickling across the ground.
“The people here never expected this,” said the Rev. Paschal Mwijage, who leads a church in Kangemi. “Even now,” he said on Wednesday afternoon, “they still don’t believe the pope’s coming.” One child from the slum said she was too excited to sleep.
Nairobi has put aside day-to-day life in expectation of the papal visit. Schools, major roads and most businesses will be closed on Thursday, an impromptu national holiday and a day of “prayer and reflection.” Hundreds of thousands of Catholics are streaming into the city from all corners of Kenya by bus, taxi, motorbike, even bicycle. Major hotels are fully booked, though many worshipers have chosen a cheaper option: sleeping on school floors.
The only event here that has come close to generating this level of excitement was President Obama’s visit in July, and hopes this time are even higher.
“The visit is a turning point in Kenya’s, and indeed Africa’s, history,” Kenya’s leading newspaper, The Daily Nation, wrote in a glowing editorial.
The Standard, its rival, wrote that the pope “speaks a language that is understood the world over,” and added: “He speaks it to the rich and to the poor, the unreached, the unconverted, the marginalized.”
“Our politicians,” the paper concluded, “could learn a thing or two from him.”
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