Between November 25 and 30, 2015, the Holy Father's pastoral mission to the African continent took in three countries in central eastern Africa, namely Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic. The choice was made to visit three nations where an average of 80 percent of the population is Christian (more specifically, around 25 percent of the population in Kenya is Catholic, 40 percent in Kenya and almost 30 percent in the Central African Republic).
These are countries that demonstrate, in different ways, the complexities and difficulties that characterise the African continent and the Sub-Saharan area in particular. This region has the highest population growth rate in the world and, according to the United Nations' forecasts, the current population of 1.1 billion could well rise to 2 billion by the year 2100. More than fifty percent of the population here is under the age of 25, a huge potential in terms of prospect of growth. Sub-Saharan Africa is in fact home to some of the countries that are growing more, in economic terms, with rates exceeding those of China, India and other emerging powers. Consequently this makes it one of the most interesting areas for present and future economic investments and business developments, in a variety of different production sectors, not just those associated with raw materials.
At the same time, however, this area also has the highest rates of poverty in the world, both in absolute terms (of the 20 poorest countries in the world, in terms of GDP, 18 are sub-Saharan) and in terms of the population that lives below the poverty line. In most sub-Saharan countries access to essential services, i.e. health, education, drinking water and electricity, is still not guaranteed for 40 to 50 percent of the population. And anyone having access to these services does so in a way that is not always stable or sustainable, at least according to the parameters of more developed countries.
Sub-Saharan Africa, therefore, highlights the existence of huge contradictions, where the gap between the wealthy few and the many poor is growing increasingly wider, not just between countries but also within them. Kenya is a typical example: the development undergone by the capital Nairobi with luxury hotels, residential areas, shopping malls and the financial city, makes it seem like a "new Dubai", but the suburbs, such as Kigera, where hundreds of thousands of people live in the midst of extreme poverty, unemployment and marginalisation, show that economic growth and development do not go hand in hand. Kenya is also one of the countries where political and social tensions are often characterised by a call to tribalism and the divisions of language and culture. This almost always occurs when there are elections, where political competition sees the use of the ethnic element as a factor of contrast and confrontation. From this point of view Pope Francis during his visit to Kenya on the first leg of his African mission appealed repeatedly to the faithful and the young people in particular to seek out true human and social values. Respecting them can lead to a peaceful coexistence and to a fair and sustainable development.
Human values remained one of the major themes during the second leg of the Pope's journey, in Uganda. Beginning with the recollection of the Christian martyrs in precolonial times, Pope Francis wanted to emphasise how charity and forgiveness must be placed at the heart of everyday life. Only values such as loyalty, honesty and integrity can help create the foundations with which to "cooperate with others for the common good and to build a more just society which promotes human dignity, defends God’s gift of life and protects the wonders of nature, his creation and our common home.”
Undoubtedly, the Holy Father's wish to visit the Central African Republic was one of the most symbolic moments of the apostolic visit. Despite the considerable threats to his safety and that of thousands of faithful gathered before him, and the numerous appeals to desist (including those from France which, following armed violence between members of opposing political factions, divided between Christians and Muslims, has had a military presence in the Central African Republic since 2013, with a contingent of about 900 military personnel ), Pope Francis wanted to give a clear and unequivocal mark of respect for others and of brotherhood among those who believe in God. The visit to the mosque, in the capital Bangui, and the meeting with the Islamic spiritual authorities (emphasised by the Pope's invitation to the Imam to climb aboard the Popemobile) was an opportunity to bear witness to the universal value of prayer.
During various public meetings with the communities in Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic, Pope Francis made a number of appeals for dialogue, peace and coming together, pointing out on more than one occasion that the clash between members of different religious communities and between Christians and Muslims in particular, has political origins, where religion is used as a tool to stir up tensions and drive people in the direction of hatred and violence. With simplicity, but with extraordinary strength and incisiveness, Pope Francis reminded people that there is no peace without justice and no justice without inclusion. This is what unites all peoples, of any ethnicity, language or religion, and that "God is peace, salam ".
* Aldo Pigoli is Professor of Contemporary African History at the Catholic University in Milan