Pope Francis gives Mass in Congo at the start of his Africa tour

Crowds gather to see Pope Francis at Kinshasa airport. (Samy Ntumba Shambuyi/AP)


KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo – Schools were closed and most work was cancelled, meaning all the chaotic roads in this megacity led to only one place on Wednesday: a domestic airport, with a temporary stage then a vast field, where hundreds of thousands were arriving, some before sunrise.

“I’m here just to catch a glimpse,” said Erick Kwele, 53, a civil servant, although from where he was standing on the ground Pope Francis would be no bigger than a fingernail.

Francis’ morning mass, his first public event during a six-day trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and then South Sudan, was a glimpse of the extraordinary unrest that is needed – even on feast days – in one of the most dynamic and dynamic regions of Africa. worst-run cities. This agitation, which Kinshasa people consider a kind of civic spirit, is necessary for daily survival. But that was also part of Wednesday’s show. Authorities estimated the crowd at more than one million.

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Even before François arrived, the pitch was a spectacle of enormity and energy: so many young people, so much bass-heavy music, dancing children and roaring choirs. Some said they would set their alarms for 3 or 4 a.m. just to negotiate traffic and secure a spot for the 9:30 a.m. ceremony. Still others said they came from the sprawling outskirts of the city, using the ubiquitous yellow vans – inevitably dented and overloaded, sagging from weight, people hanging over the sides. Kwele said that in her neighborhood, some of the poorest people had walked for miles to get to mass.

“People will do whatever they can to overcome their difficulties,” he said.

Kinshasa welcomes Francis for three days, and the city makes a fitting emblem for so much of Africa’s potential, its problems and its importance for the Catholic Church. The city is renowned for its uncontrolled growth – a population that has increased 35 times since the 1960s – and it is only expected to continue to grow. By 2100, it should have 60 million inhabitants, against 15 million currently. For a Catholic faith that is losing followers in the West, Africa appears to be the new center of Christianity.

But Kinshasa, so far, has not been able to manage this growth. Much of its infrastructure dates back decades. A century of devastating colonial rule gave way to periods of autocracy, violence and corruption. The city lacks planning, good roads, railroads, electricity and running water. Jobs are disproportionately located in a sliver near the center, and given the spread of new slums – 10, 15 miles away – many Kinshasans spend hours a day in crowded vehicles, braving the nests-of -hen, heat, fumes and shakedowns.

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An elite class lives in an area along the Congo River with embassies and international hotels, including one hosting the Vatican press delegation, where a club sandwich costs $29. But most Congolese live on less than $2 a day.

The inequalities were visible even during mass on Wednesday, when the vast majority of people were strewn across the fields, with no shade and no seats, while VIPs reclined on padded gold-colored seats.

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“I’m resting just before mass starts,” said Keto Esperence, 64, who was lying on a tarp in a field two hours before Francis arrived. She said she woke up at 3 a.m. and walked a short part of the way from her home. She said her energy would come back for the mass.

“You’ll see,” said Esperence, who owns a pharmacy. “We will stay here until nightfall if necessary.”

Francis, who was forced to cancel a 2022 trip to Congo and South Sudan due to knee pain, arrived at the airport to roar in the back of a van converted into a popemobile. He pushed through the crowd, offering gentle waves before being carried to the stage, where he joined the bishops of Congo and led mass. steeped in ethnic tension that also involves Rwanda.

“We must believe that we Christians are called to cooperate with everyone, to break the cycle of violence, to dismantle the machinations of hatred,” Francis said.

He said it was the Lord’s message to “lay down the arms.”

Alain Uaykani contributed to this report.

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