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Konso: Cultural Landscape

A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011, the Konso Cultural Landscape is named after its agriculturist inhabitants, who have moulded their 230km2 homeland of semi-arid hills into productive agricultural land. A striking feature of Konso is the ancient hilltop paleta (terrace and walled villages) - strange hobbit-warrens towered over by generation poles felled from a sacred forest, and studded with curvaceous thatched community houses. The Konso are also renowned for their waka grave-markers, anthropomorphic hardwood statues carved to mimic the deceased, and for their communally constructed reservoirs.

  • Konso's hilltop paleta villages emphasise defensive structures. Each village is encircled by up to six concentric dry-stone basalt walls that stand around 4 metres high and are entered only through two or more ceremonial gates. About two dozen traditional villages are scattered around the World Heritage Site, the most frequently visited being Mecheke, Dokatu, Gamole and Buso.
  • A village is divided into several subcommittees, each with its own mora, a striking open-sided and thatch-roofed community house.
  • The oldest mora in a village stands alongside a small common where an olahita (generation pole) is erected every 18 years to mark the initiation of a new generation-set. The age of any given paleta can be determined by counting its generation poles: Dokatu with 43 olahita indicating an age of more than 750 years, is claimed to be the oldest village in Konso,
  • In some villages, the exploits of a celebrated age-set is commemorated by the erection of a stone obelisk called a daga-hela, a custom that makes Konso one of the world’s last existing megalithic cultures.
  • The Konso erect impressionistic wooden waka grave-markers at the burial place of an important man or particularly brave warrior. Although many waka can still be seen in situ, the Konso Museum displays around 200 examples that were confiscated by the local authorities after being looted by foreign collectors.
  • The Konso countryside typically comprises hard, dry, rocky slopes, so the people have developed an extensive system of dry-stone terracing to prevent erosion and create saddles for agriculture.
  • Gesergiyo is a Konso village best known for a nearby gorge filled with skyscraper-like water-sculpted sand pinnacles nicknamed ‘New York’.
  • The sacred Kalla Forest is the site of an important chief’s compound and the new Konso Coffee Cooperative, which uses a traditional dry method to process the coffee beans.

 

Getting There

Karat-Konso lies about 540km south of Addis Ababa along a good road through Butajira and Arba Minch. Most visitors to Konso drive there as part of an organised tour, also taking in South Omo zone to the west. The closest airport is at Arba Minch, 85km to the north of Konso. Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com) operates daily flights to Arba Minch from Addis Ababa. Hotels in Arba Minch can arrange transfers or tours to Karat Konso.

Getting Around

The area is most often explored on an organised 4x4 tour out of Addis Ababa or Arba Minch. All visitors must report to the Konso Tourist Information Centre in Karat-Konso to pay entrance fees and arrange a mandatory guide before visiting any of the traditional villages.

The Konso Tourist Information Centre can also arrange multi-day overnight hikes taking in several villages as well as the Doha hot springs and rock formations at Gesergiyo.

Accommodation

There is one proper tourist lodge on the outskirts of Karat-Konso. Several small budget hotels can be found in the town centre.

Shopping

A few stalls in Karat-Konso sell traditional Konso fabrics and other local handicrafts. There are also craft sellers operating in most of the more popular traditional Konso villages.

Konso Tourist Information Centre - tel +251 (0) 46 7730395/6, www.konsotourism.gov.et.

Bradt Guide to Ethiopia by Philip Briggs (7th edition 2015), www.bradtguides.com - detailed background information and up-to-date hotel, restaurant and other listings.

SNNPR South Tourism - www.southtourism.gov.et.

  1. The small junction town of Karat Konso, with several hotels and restaurants to choose from, is the normal base for further exploration of the region.
  2. The Konso Museum, 1.5km from Karat-Konso, displays a superb collection of waka grave-markers, and also contains a wealth of interpretative material.
  3. Colourful photographic displays of the Konso people as well as an ethnographic library are housed in the Konso Cultural Centre, a few hundred metres west of Karat-Konso.
  4. Bordering Karat-Konso, the much older village of Olanta still functions as a self-contained traditional polity comprising 12 sub-communities and mora generation houses.
  5. Among the largest Konso villages, Dokatu, claimed locally to be around 750 years old, is especially worthwhile on the market days of Monday and Thursday.
  6. About 5km from Karat-Konso, Gamole is surrounded by three concentric protective stone walls, and a fourth is likely to be constructed soon to accommodate the growing population.
  7. A few hundred metres apart off the road to Yabello, Dura and Jarso are small and relatively little visited villages. The latter is renowned for its traditional weavers.
  8. Buso, a beautifully located village set around an uninhabited wooded hill, is the site of a field of daga-hela megaliths erected as generation makers.
  9. The most celebrated traditional Konso village is Mecheke, which stands on a tall hill 13km from Karat Konso, and includes four clusters of very old waka grave-markers.
  10. The small village of Gesergiyo is best known for a nearby gorge filled with skyscraper-like water-sculpted sand pinnacles nicknamed ‘New York’.
  11. Fasha is worth a stop to visit its 100 year old Ethiopian Orthodox church and large market, which is busiest on Saturday.
  12. The sacred Kalla Forest is the site of an important chief’s compound and the new Konso Coffee Cooperative, which uses a traditional dry method to process the coffee beans.
  13. Accessible only on foot, the hot springs at Doha form a popular goal for hikers exploring the region over several days.