Konso: Southern Treasure
Konso is an ordinary ghost town, but an extraordinary landscape and historical significance found within the Southern Regional State. While it promotes itself as one recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for its “cultural landscape”, the town of Konso people is a missed opportunity of little infrastructures and youthful populations.
According to UNESCO, it’s a landscape that “is a 55km2 arid properties of stone walled terraces and fortified settlements in the Konso highlands of Ethiopia that consist a spectacular example of a living culture tradition stretching back 21 generations (more than 400 years) adapted to its dry hostile environment”.
Welcome to Konso - known the gateway of the Omo River – a beautiful society, unique landscape, rich history and engineering but a place that remains underdeveloped and as Philip Briggs, the noted traveler once described, “a traffic circle of comically vast dimensions”.
There are few decent hotels here to welcome the tourists who would otherwise appreciate its uniqueness, with the exception of dotted decent lodges that do brisk business and ample bars selling cheap beers, it is no wonder, it remains an abandoned town with little activities.
The local museum, constructed in recent years, the Konso Museum is off limits for many tourists unless one is given permission from the local administration of the city for a nominal fee and as a result, it remains empty most days and most simply avoids the museum and focus on local guides to show them around the city.
“You need to have permission from the authorities and you cannot take photos or remain in the premises, let alone enter the museum area,” the guard shouted, standing in front of a plaque commemorating trees planted by former Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn.
Just two hours of gravel road from Arba Minch, a 70 birr ride on public transportation, according to the latest statistics from a generation ago, from 2007, the Konso Special Wereda has a total population of 235,087.
Most guides are knowledgeable and often passionate and are eager to show the best of the area to the best of their circumstances.
“We have some tourists who come throughout the year, in the summer months and we are a lot busier then, but then again, mostly, we seat ideally waiting for them to come,” said a tour guide inside a government run tour agency. “Many are amazed by what they see and hear, but are taken aback the little choices of accommodations we have and the roads that are not always friendly and can almost break your back.”
“We value them, not just as sources of income, but as ambassadors of Konso, we want them to tell the best of us, to the world,” he added.
There is much to see to the proximity of Konso, starting from the unique landscape, nicknamed “New York” in Karat as well, the unique agricultural landscape of the area and the burial traditions, erected grave sites of the locals, categorized by what the deceased has achieved, from one reserved to a hero, to the ordinary and one that may have killed dangerous animals.
It has a complex system and has anthropomorphic statues, reflecting the sub-standards living testimony of the deceased.
Ferro Vazquez, University of York Department of Archaeology studied the local agricultural landscape for over a year and concluded its worth.
“The impressive terraced landscape in Konso includes some 40 historic walled towns surrounded by a system of dry-stone agricultural terracing, complemented with a complex array of other soil and water conservation techniques such as water and soil harvesting; inter-cropping; agro forestry; livestock; and beekeeping activities. As a result, the stony hillsides of Konso are turned into protected fertile agricultural landscapes, she observed.
“Yelas are a key feature of the Konso terraced landscape. This particular type of field is built by placing a few courses of stones transversely to the river, where fine sediments entrained within running water are deposited, permitting more drystone courses to be added and further alluvial sediments to be captured. Terraces were then constructed for protecting this crucial agricultural resource from stony material eroded downhill slopes, she added.
Back at what has become known as New York, wisdom has it by a Norwegian archaeologist, it is a unique landscape of sand formation created by water erosion and wind. It remains abandoned with young children following the few tourists to come, soliciting entitled tips and any “gifts” they may want to leave behind and has almost no infrastructures, including the everyday essentials, like adequate toilets, no place to rest or anything else and very few tourists venture to this part of Ethiopia.
“This is my first-time visiting Africa and to Ethiopia. I was convinced to come here expecting the unexpected,” a tourist from Denmark said as she rode of the back of a motorbike to the area for 10 Birr. “I appreciate its uniqueness and the beauty of the local custom and tradition, I am happy to be here. But it would be a hard sell for my friends and others to convenience them to come here,” she said. “I did not expect to come and discover Paris or Manhattan here, but Ethiopia should begin to invest in the essentials to bring tourists and make them want to come. As of now, coming to Ethiopia is like a thrill for most, to say you made it despite all its shortcomings and reputation. If I had not come, it would have remained a mystery to me”.
However, this is the second time for her friend, Helen, who resides in Addis Ababa and works for a non-governmental organization.
"I have been in Ethiopia for almost five years. I have almost never ventured outside of the capital. However, as my time almost concludes (in your country), I want be have a full picture of the nation. Just staying in the capital does not show the full picture and here I am," she said.
"But please, take care of it. All these treasures are on the eve of disappearing. They need to be taken good care and be seen as an essential government priority or there would be little interest for tourists to come your way. Saying you want to bring tourists without putting resources in its infrastructure are just empty words and empty words do not lure tourists," she continued as her friend nodded in agreement.