June 7 2012
KONSO, Ethiopia — The booming drums and lusty singing of Ethiopia’s Konso tribe, celebrating their hometown joining the UN’s list of World Heritage Sites, echoed down the road that winds through lush green hills.
When the revellers came into sight, there was an explosion of colour — women in bright orange skirts and men in striped neon yellow and red shorts, heads topped with decorative feathers and cowhide masks.
Under the blazing midday sun, Konso residents brandishing animal skin shields chanted as they streamed through the streets, followed by a full marching band.
Hundreds of Konso people turned out in their famed town, 600 kilometres (375 miles) southwest of Addis Ababa, for the recent formal inauguration of their inclusion in UNESCO’s heritage list.
UNESCO chose the stone-walled terraces and fortified settlements in the Konso highlands — spread over 55 square kilometres (21 square miles) — as it represents among other things a living cultural tradition spanning centuries.
The Konsos are among the last remaining people to produce, use and discard stone tools on a regular basis.
Its new status makes Ethiopia the top African country for protected sites and promises to preserve an ancient culture under threat in a rapidly developing country.
“The potential risk is that this is an era of globalisation… and Konso is not an exception,” said Yonas Desta, general director at the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, an arm of the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture.
“How this urbanisation is harmonised with the essential values of Konso — that’s the clear line that we need to carefully understand and manage,” he added, standing before one of Konso’s towering mountains.
Konso’s addition to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list was decided in 2011 but only made official this year.
It recognises Konso’s centuries-old cultural traditions, namely sophisticated terracing techniques, cuisine, music, dance and unique burial rites.
Ethiopia’s famed rock-hewn churches in Lalibela and the towering obelisks of Axum count among the country’s other heritage sites.
The South Omo valley has also received recognition, and several rights groups have accused Addis Ababa of threatening cultural preservation with the construction of a controversial dam in the region.
Konso, a town of 300,000 people where herds of cattle clog the narrow roads, is the first in the country to be recognised for its “cultural landscape.”
Dinote Kusia Shankere, a cultural officer in Konso, said the new title was “marvellous” because it will keep Konso traditions alive.
“Most of the young people are forgetting their culture… up to now nothing is written about Konso culture,” he said at the town’s museum that was built with French funding in 2010.
“I’m happy because this inauguration can change the young generation’s mind so they will be devoted to (preserve) the culture.”
In addition to lively singing and dancing, Konso culture is best known for the death rites among clan chiefs who are buried with carved wood statues of fallen warriors called Waka.
The museum also has several steles, some 150 years old, carved human-like figures which have been illegally trafficked in the art world in recent years.
Sophisticated terracing also sets the community apart and has allowed agriculture to thrive in one of the most arid regions of Ethiopia chronically hit with food shortages.
“They have managed their existence in a harsh environment, and the social norms, the customs, have truly helped them,” Yonas said.
The World Heritage Site designation also promises to boost tourism in a country whose image has been tarnished by a deadly tourist attack in the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia in January that killed five foreigners.
“We have started to develop tourism in Ethiopia in line with the potential we have and the planned development efforts,” Yonas said.
“We are observing an increasing number of tourists though that unfortunate accident is clearly not a merit to tourism,” he added.
Tourism brought in $254 million (195 million euros) in the last six months and is part of the government’s overall strategy to boost growth by moving away from raw agricultural exports as the main revenue earner.
Visitors also boost local employment, Konso resident Kushabo Kalale said.
“On the one side we are getting exposure to the world and on the other, for the local people, there is income,” he said.
“It’s a very special occasion for our culture to be recognised,” he gushed with a smile.