NAIROBI, Kenya, Nov 25 – Pope Francis landed in Kenya’s capital Nairobi Wednesday on the first leg of a landmark three-nation trip to Africa, greeted with cheering crowds and traditional dancers.
As the papal plane trundled across the tarmac, a Kenyan and a Vatican flag flying from the front, crowds decked in brightly-coloured clothes, arms around each other’s shoulders, bounced up and down waiting for the plane to halt.
Stepping onto the red carpet, the 78-year-old pontiff nodded in greeting, smiling broadly as the excited crowd erupted into cheers, whistles and ululations of joy, and a choir burst into song.
Dancers, some in traditional feather headdresses, colourful dresses and beads, leapt high into the air, as Francis was met by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta with a red carpet welcome.
The pontiff, who will also visit Uganda and troubled Central African Republic (CAR) before flying back to Rome on Monday, is expected to call for the need to address inequality to ensure peace and end conflict.
On a trip fraught with security concerns, thousands of police and troops have been deployed with key roads closed in the capital Nairobi, to ensure the visit is peaceful.
Al-Qaeda’s East Africa branch, the Shabaab, have launched a string of attacks against Kenya because they have troops deployed in Somalia.
– ‘More worried about the mosquitoes’-
Francis said he was delighted to make his first visit to Africa.
“I go with joy to meet Kenyans, Ugandans and our brothers in Central Africa,” he said during the flight to Kenya, where he played down fears for his safety, joking he was “more worried about the mosquitoes.”
Vast crowds are anticipated in the capital at a giant open air mass on Thursday, which has been declared a public holiday.
A packed schedule will see the pope visit a Nairobi slum, a shrine to Christian martyrs in Uganda and both a mosque and a refugee camp in CAR. A total of 19 speeches will include a major statement on the environment ahead of the Paris climate change summit.
With the bulk of the planned events outdoors, there were fears the unusually heavy ‘El Nino’ rains forecast for later in the week could prove extremely challenging with many fearing local infrastructure will be unable to cope.
Ugandan police spokesman Fred Enanga has said security will be “heavy” and that airforce surveillance planes would be deployed “to ensure our skies are clear of any possible threat.”
The CAR leg of the trip has been maintained despite warnings from French peacekeepers there that they cannot guarantee Francis’s security.