NAIROBI - Pope Francis arrived in Kenya's capital Wednesday evening for his first trip to Africa, a five-day tour that will take him to some of the world's poorest communities and to countries facing intractable conflicts.
Francis will visit Kenya, Uganda, and the war-torn Central African Republic during the potentially dangerous visit. The trip affords him an opportunity to speak directly to one of the church's fastest-growing populations and reemphasize central themes of his papacy: global poverty, the problem of climate change, and respect between faiths.
Not long after arriving here, the pontiff invoked some of those issues in a speech to Kenyan political and religious leaders.
"Violence, conflict, and terrorism feed on fear, mistrust, and the despair born of poverty and frustration," he told an audience of 2,000 people, who frequently burst into applause.
Over two full days in Kenya, the pope will find a vibrant, cosmopolitan African capital that is still struggling to raise the standard of living for its poorest residents. More than 40 percent of Kenyans live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
The pope's visit comes as Kenya is embroiled in one of its biggest corruption scandals. Five top ministers were fired Tuesday on suspicion of stealing or mismanaging public funds.
Francis has been outspoken about the ills of corruption, calling it in July "the gangrene of society." Many Kenyans wondered whether Francis would highlight the issue during his visit.
"The gap between the rich and the poor is growing here, and corruption is a major part of the problem," said the Rev. Chrisantus Ndaga, deputy secretary-general of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa, which helped plan the pope's visit. "It's the right time for a message of encouragement from the pope."
In his speech on Wednesday, Francis urged Kenya's leaders to "work with integrity and transparency for the common good" and "promote responsible models of economic development."
As the pope landed in Nairobi, he was greeted by throngs of people waving, dancing, and singing "Karibu Kenya, Papa," or "Welcome to Kenya, Pope" in Swahili. The highway leading from the airport was lined with posters bearing images of the pontiff.
"Tears of joy as Pope Francis arrives in Kenya," said the lead headline in Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper.
Some Kenyans suggested that the country's top officials could learn from the pope's modest style. He left the airport in a basic Honda sedan - "the type of car ordinarily used by any Kenyan," the Daily Nation said.
In introducing the pope, Kenya's president, Uhuru Kenyatta, also alluded to the corruption problems plaguing his government, saying that graft "sacrifices people and our environment in the pursuit of illegal profit."
Many wonder whether the pope will speak about sexual or gender rights during his Africa trip, particularly in Uganda, where the government has tried to impose life prison terms for those convicted of "homosexual acts." Although the pope is perceived by some to be more accepting of gay members of the church, experts say Francis is unlikely to discuss those issues at length.
Instead, the pontiff is expected to focus much of his time on interfaith issues, namely the growing tensions between Christian and Muslim populations across Africa. Kenya has been hit particularly hard by al-Shabab, the Somali-based Islamist extremist group, which has carried out numerous attacks. They include a 2013 attack on Nairobi's Westgate Mall that left 67 dead and an assault in April on a university in eastern Kenya in which 147 were killed.
But the focal point of his Africa trip appears to be the Central African Republic, where a war between Christians and Muslims has claimed more than 5,000 lives since 2013. The fighting there remains intense, and some security experts are surprised that the visit has not been canceled.
It is the first time a pope has traveled to an active conflict zone.
In the Central African Republic, Francis is scheduled to meet with Muslims at the central Koudougou mosque in Bangui, the capital. Driving through the city, he is likely to see some of the thousands who have been displaced by the most recent spasm of violence. Even U.N. camps have proven unsafe. This month, rebel fighters entered the Batangafo camp, firing weapons and setting huts on fire. About 5,500 people fled the camp to seek shelter elsewhere, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Asked by reporters during his flight to Kenya whether he was worried about the security situation, he replied: "I'm more afraid of the mosquitoes."