Friday, 26 September 2014 00:00

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.