Impressions Brought Back From My First Africa Trip With The Pope

Dec 6, 2015
Originally published on December 23, 2015 4:32 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On Monday, Pope Francis returned to Rome from his six-day, three-nation tour of Africa. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli was among the media traveling with the pope. And she sent us these thoughts on her experience.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The trip to Africa was the first for many of us, including the pope. On the Rome-Nairobi flight, I learned that Francis and I shared a key concern. Asked if he was nervous, the pope replied, only about the mosquitoes; did you bring your spray? It may have been self-mockery, but the pope hit the nail on the head of my obsession. I had come equipped with what was probably a year's supply of bug repellent. As it turned out, I think I only saw two mosquitoes during the whole trip. My first sensations of each African country were the airport welcoming ceremonies. The one at Entebbe, Uganda was spectacular - men and women in native costumes shaking it up to an intense drum beat, bishops in the receiving line tapping their feet, a smiling nun swaying alongside the performers on the tarmac. A beaming Francis came up close to watch and listen. As the days passed, the easy-going mood and feel of Africa seized us all. There were so many fascinating things to snap photos of, people to listen to, sounds to record that the usually anarchic media pack became ever harder for our Vatican minders to keep in line. The most difficult situation was after we landed in the Central African Republic in the grips of civil war. At Bangui Airport, there was tension between blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers and local police. Machine guns were everywhere, as well as tanks on the main roads. A U.N. soldier rode shotgun on our minibus.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

POGGIOLI: But the tension lifted when we arrived at Saint Sauveur camp for displaced persons.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

POGGIOLI: Close to 4,000 people living in tents or ramshackle sheds were euphoric as the pope walked down red dirt paths, patting heads of the hundreds of cheering children. They held signs with the French words for unity, peace, love. Women in turbans and colorful dresses danced to the music.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

POGGIOLI: On the flight back to Rome, the pope told reporters, Africa is a martyr. It has always been exploited by other powers who do not understand the damage certain development models do to humanity. For this reason, I love Africa. We could see that the first Latin American pope had been bitten by the passion the French call le mal d'Afrique. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.