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Pope Francis’ recent visit to Uganda and Kenya: What do the pope’s messages teach us about emerging security threats and global health problems?

By Agnes Nanyonjo
on December 3, 2015

Catholics make up 24% and 45% of the Kenyan and Ugandan populations respectively. Recently the two East African neighbours were honoured by a visit from the Pontiff, on his first African visit (25-29 November) – the last leg of his brief African journey was Central African Republic (30 November). In this blog I will just focus on the pope’s visits to Uganda and Kenya which won’t be forgotten easily (at least by me and many other compatriots, catholic or not). As usual, Francis didn’t mince words.

In Nairobi, thousands of worshippers braved the rain and lined up in the streets to catch a glimpse of pope Francis, a very remarkable pope to say the least (in football terms you could call him “The Special One”). In addition to playing his usual pastoral role, the purpose of the Pontiff’s visit was also to draw focus on Africa as a continent of hope and not just a hotbed of terror and disease as it has all too often been referred to in the western media (admittedly interspersed with some ‘Africa rising’ rhetoric in magazines like The Economist in recent years). As a Ugandan researcher and SDGs optimist, working closely with people in the slums in Nairobi and eagerly waiting for the day when Kenya and Uganda will harness their so called “demographic dividend” (a state whereby birth rates fall due to a significant decline in infant and child mortality thus leading to increased life expectancy and an increased proportion of the productive age-group of a nation), I think some important lessons can (and should) be drawn by the global health community from the Pontiff’s views as reflected in his multiple messages to Kenyan and Ugandan audiences, in rainy and more sunny circumstances. Furthermore, the Pontiff’s messages related to national policies in the two countries offer some more lessons for national decision makers as well. If they heed the gist of his messages, East African governments could work together with the church (as they have long done in several other sectors) to ensure the achievement of sustainable development and harness the demographic dividend.

Below you find a summary of the Pontiff’s –  sometimes hard-hitting – messages and statements.


On social inclusiveness

The Pontiff spoke forcefully against “practices which foster arrogance in men, hurt or demean women, and threaten the life of the innocent unborn”; also, the elderly shouldn’t be neglected, he insisted. In line with his strong beliefs and the teachings of Jesus, he also encouraged catholics to care for the poor and vulnerable.


On conflict and violence

The Pontiff identified the failure to address poverty as the key driver of conflicts, violence, and terrorism. He blamed high levels of youth unemployment for making youth vulnerable to being recruited into terrorist activities. In his view, key mechanisms for conflict and violence are mistrust, fear, despair and frustration. While acknowledging that our societies experience divisions, based on ethnicity, religion and socioeconomic status, he expressed his strong conviction that reconciliation and interfaith dialogue are not an option but a dire necessity.


On the refugee crisis

He was deeply touched by Uganda’s exemplary behaviour in welcoming refugees  in the East African region and called for fair treatment of refugees all over the world. ““How we deal with them is a test of our humanity, our respect for human dignity, and above all our solidarity with our brothers and sisters in need”.


On urbanisation

He emphasized that urbanization should be effectively planned and condemned the level of indifference shown to the destruction caused by rapid ineffective urbanization. He noted that social breakdown as commonly occurs in the informal slum settlements increases violence. He acknowledged that as the land inhabited by the poor gets swallowed up by cities and towns, the youth tend to loose their identity and resort to new forms of social aggression including vices such as drug abuse and trafficking. The Pontiff challenged the government to ensure that urbanization is used as a means for development and integrated with the basic human right to live in dignified conditions: the very basics of life such as water, sanitation, education, housing and health care should be preserved and guaranteed. Pope Francis also condemned the practice of land grabbing, especially with respect to public spaces, as private corporations have been depriving schools of playgrounds and forcing poor people into even more tightly packed slum settings where criminal behavior is on the rise. Speaking in a shantytown, he even likened the injustices the poor people in Kenya are faced with, to new forms of colonialism. He called for equitable elimination of urban poverty by the governments with tangible plans to provide good housing for all.


On environmental preservation and carbon emissions

Also in Nairobi, the pope warned, just days before the start of COP 21 in Paris, that the world is facing a “grave environmental crisis” and spoke eloquently about the intersection between social justice and nature conservation.    In line with the key messages in his Encyclical Laudato Si (“On Care for our Common Home”) from earlier this year, he acknowledged the intimate connection between man and nature and reminded the world’s citizens of their responsibility to pass on the beauty of nature in all its integrity to the generations to come. He urged the nations to be responsible stewards of the rich natural resources they are blessed with.  He was saddened by the fact that many large cities today are in fact health threats (or even traps) with very poor air quality, urban chaos, poor transport systems, visual and noise pollution. He condemned the non-recycling consumerist culture, wasteful use of resources in production of food and other goods that has led to high greenhouse gas emissions. He called for the adoption of low-carbon energy systems and sustainable consumption and production patterns in order to prevent degradation of the ecosystem and catastrophic climate change. As you can imagine, Francis didn’t spare the ivory poachers and diamond smugglers in both Uganda and Kenya.


On governance

Although the Pontiff believes that corruption has infiltrated several institutions all over the world (including the Vatican, he acknowledged, with a smirk), he advised the crowds and particularly the youth in Africa to refrain from idolizing corruption, tribalism and other devastating effects of corruption. Using a somewhat global health-stylish metaphor, he emphasized: “Corruption is something that eats you inside like sugar. It’s sweet, we like it, it’s easy. And then we end up sick and poor. So much sugar that we either end up being diabetic or own country ends up being diabetic.”


On HIV/AIDS and condoms

As the world was gearing up for World AIDS day, celebrated every year on the 1st of December, Pope Francis took some time to visit a hospital for HIV infected children while in Uganda. Nonetheless, on his return to the Vatican, when asked about the role of condoms in the fight against AIDS during an in-flight press conference, the pope was quick to point out that there are more important issues confronting the world such as malnutrition, environmental exploitation and lack of clean safe drinking water. At the very least, a bit funny timing for this sort of stance.


On LGBT rights

Last but not least, although Ugandan homosexuals were eagerly hoping for an opportunity to meet  pope Francis who has recently shown sympathy for sexual minority groups, he remained silent on this rather contentious issue in the East African Region. Whilst harnessing the demographic dividend that many countries aspire for depends on controlling  unplanned population growth, the issue of population control was not addressed by the Pontiff…


In conclusion, the pontiff’s messages related to policies in East Africa cut across several areas addressed by the SDGs and expressed principles that underpin the global health challenges of today, even if the pope he still has his flaws (just like his predecessors).  His views provide practical lessons that can be used to address some of the most pressing global health and security issues of today.

Suffice to say, his view of what real ‘global health security’, a truly ‘rising Africa’ and inclusiveness require seems rather different from that of the ‘powers that be’.

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