NAIROBI (Reuters) - In actions and words on his first tour of the world’s poorest continent, Pope Francis has sent a message to African leaders that they could do with less pomp and a bit more humility.
In a region where presidents speed past slums in cavalcades of luxury vehicles and the public complain about corruption in high office, the pope was cheered as he drove in a small Honda and told national leaders to act with integrity.
Kenya’s prolific Twitter users were quick to notice the contrast. “Thieving politicians arrive in their SUVs and Mercs to listen to @Pontifex who will arrive in a Honda. Shameless ‘leaders’,” wrote @Kunj_Shah.
Francis, who has spurned many of the institutional perks of the Vatican, shunned the armored cars with tinted glass driven by President Uhuru Kenyatta and his entourage.
Nor did he follow the example of visitors like U.S. President Barack Obama, who turned up in Nairobi in July for an official visit with an army of security personnel and a bullet-proof limousine, dubbed “the Beast”.
Instead, the pope waved to rapturous crowds from his white popemobile with open sides despite pouring rain and was ferried around Nairobi in the Honda that local media said cost a modest 1.5 million shillings ($14,700).
“The pope is down to earth,” said Lucy Musyoka, 48, who braved a downpour to attend open-air Mass in a sodden Nairobi University sports field. “It is good for our leaders to notice.”
“They like the wealth of the world but they can’t understand the people of our country,” she said. “It is vanity.”
The pope lives in a small apartment in a guesthouse in the Vatican rather than the spacious papal apartments in the regal and frescoed Apostolic Palace used by his predecessors.
The day after his election in 2013, he returned to a Rome hotel to personally pay his bill and recently went to a Rome optician to pick up his own eyeglasses. In September, he rode around Washington DC in a small Fiat on his state visit there.
His Africa trip will take the Pope to Uganda and the Central African Republic, a nation mired in sectarian conflict. He dismissed security concerns, joking with reporters that the “only thing I’m concerned about is the mosquitoes”.
Barely two hours after arriving in Nairobi on Wednesday, Francis told the president and dignitaries they had a duty to care for the poor and support the aspirations of the young.
“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,” he said, speaking in the elegant surroundings of State House, the Kenyan president’s official residence.
A day earlier, Kenyatta reshuffled his cabinet after several ministers were embroiled in corruption allegations. Kenyatta, a Catholic like 30 percent of Kenya’s 45 million people, also spoke of the challenge of graft in his welcome to the pope.
“Your Holiness, like you, as a nation we want to combat the vices of corruption which sacrifice people and the environment in the pursuit of illegal profit,” Kenyatta told Francis. “Holy Father, I ask for your prayer as we fight this war.”
Scandals in past months have ranged from a ministry buying ballpoint pens for $85 each and probes into multi-million dollar government contract awards.
It has angered Kenyans, even though they are long used to corruption sagas where top officials never seem to be convicted.
When he was finance minister Kenyatta tried to address ostentation among officials, demanding they use smaller cars but there has been little lasting impact.
“The sheer humility of the Pope, the simplicity of his message, I fear may be lost on the most rapacious elite on this side of Africa,” John Githongo, Kenya’s former anti-graft tzar and now an outspoken anti-corruption activist, said.
($1 = 102.0000 Kenyan shillings)
(The story was refiled to add a missing ‘a’ to first paragraph)
Additional reporting by George Obulusta and Philip Pullella; Editing by Anna Willard