Konso awarded heritage status
It’s been almost a decade since the Ethiopian settlement Konso has made a bid to become a World Heritage Site. It was not an audacious bid as it looked. Last week words came that it has become a success. The Konso cultural landscape was inscribed alongside famous Ethiopian landmarks like Lalibela, Simien National Park, Fasil Ghebbi, Aksum and Harar’s Jugol. The Konso terraces are now world class.
AFP’s report has it that the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Culture Organization, or Unesco, awarded World Heritage status to the Konso cultural landscape which features stone-walled terraces and fortified settlements dating back 400 years. UNESCO described the landscape as “a spectacular example of a living cultural tradition stretching back 21 generations”.
Konso’s listing with Unesco–which helps governments and local residents safeguard their most valuable cultural and natural assets and promotes international cooperation on conservation—brings the total number of World Heritage sites in Ethiopia to 9, making it the premier in the whole of Africa.
As a regular traveler to the area, I have more than a nominal interest in the story. Since I got my first glimpse of Konso last year, I have been going there frequently, accompanying tourists. On my first trip, Konso had enticed me with its unique landscape, unspoiled, atmosphere. I hunted down whatever information I could find. Now, on longer acquaintance, I have come to appreciate the life of a place whose everyday reality slightly differed from my own.
Karat, the capital of Konso, has always been a tourist destination, but mostly it is because it is the gateway to South Omo where other high profile colorful tribes could be found. Karat is best approached on its own terms with an open mind. Yet it could be a rare and joyous find and it merits a discovery of its own. Karat, located about 595km south of Addis Ababa, is about two hours south of Arba Minch. Leaving Arba Minch, through the mostly gravel road, and crisscrossing the Derashe people, the famous Konso terracing begins to appear. The terracing is meticulous and eye-catcher. It is done over long period of time using stone, basalt in most cases. From the abundance of stone, the strong-willed Konso drive the material for terraces, but also for walls to protect the fields against floodwater, and to encircle their towns. Stone is as much a part of their life as soil.
Karat is a small lively town with telephone, internet, sub post office, petrol stations, hotels, private and government health centers. Moreover, two unfinished yet operational tourist standard lodges, three simple community based accommodation centers with a camping and other modest hotels exist.
Once on the top of the hill, you are in the heart of old Konso. The fields are dotted with trees, especially of the leafy shiferaw (Moringa stenoptelai) tree which is specially planted, since the foliage is used for food. The principal crops on the lower slopes are sorghum, of which at least twenty-four varieties are grown, and maize; on higher ground. Cottons are also grown, which the Konso weave into local cloth and they export to other parts of Ethiopia. The strong tradition of cloth weaving is evident in the vibrant and colorful clothing worn by womenfolk, though most young men are dressed in modern jeans clothes.
Konso towns make a strong impression of antiquity and mystery upon the stranger: the russet walls, crude and massive, forced out of the soil on which they stand, and the encircling woods. The sites are chosen for their defensive advantages, and generally they crown the summit of a hill, so that the terrain falls away steeply on three sides.
As C.R Hallpike wrote in ‘The Konso of Ethiopia,a study of Values of a Cushitic people’, the Konso have some cultural ties to the Oromo. They have a generation-grading set known as the Kata, which is similar to the Oromo Gada system. The Konso probably split off many years ago from a proto-Oromo people, wandered around southern Ethiopia and finally settled in the present land. Bust still, the Konso are markedly shorter and more negroides than their neighbors Borena. They are clearly an amalgam, both physically and culturally, in which other stocks than Oromo are represented.
There are about 32 villages with massive walled stones and the walled towns have 1-8 concentric walls, with the central walls being taller than the second, and the third. Narrow lanes and steep footpaths lead you to the cottages. Because of the way of the hills, each neighborhood has evolved as separate community with its own kinfolk’s flavor.Every village consists of a number of sub-communities, each of which is centered upon a mora or communal house. This is a tall building with an open–sided ground floor supported by juniper trunks, and a sharply angled thatched roof covering a wooden ceiling. The ground floor serves as a shady place where villagers –men, boys and girls, but not grown men-can relax, gossip, play and make important communal decisions.
The compounds are crowded tightly together. Each married man has his compound with a number of huts, from a minimum of three to a dozen or more. His junior wives, if he has any, each live in separate compounds, often at some distance from their husbands. Similarly, his sons will set up house after they marry in their won homesteads, with the exception of the eldest son, who lives with his father even after marriage, as he will inherit the principal homestead. In recent years, the Konso moved in small numbers to scattered settlements beyond their core area.
Groves of graceful trees dot the landscape, often Junipers which have ritual significance as well as providing the beams for house construction. The Konso are experts on woods of all kinds and know the durability of the massive timbers which keep a house standing for eighty years or more. Inside each house there is a short wooden entrance tunnel causing the visitor to enter on hands and knees, and permitting the occupant to decide whether it is a friend or foe.
The Konso erect a generation pole in the village’s ceremonial square which forms an important part of their ritual. By counting the number of poles and multiplying them by 18 it is easy to tell how old any given village is.
The Konso are also well-known for their unique carved, wooden grave markers called waga. The marker is traditionally erected above the grave of an important Konso man or warrior and is surrounded by smaller statues of his wives and defeated enemies. Though this practice is disappearing, it is one of the points that made Konso earn the world heritage crown.