A museum to save an Ethiopian tribe’s soul

Women jump up in their fluffy orange cotton skirts, waggling their shoulders at men who are swift to join the dance, sporting white feathers in their hair and shepherd’s crooks in their hands.

This tribal dance pays tribute to the heroes of the small Konso community, an ethnic group which has lived for 700 years in a remote region of south-east Ethiopia 600km from the capital Addis Ababa.

The fete was organised to celebrate the inauguration in December of a local museum dedicated to Konso culture, which will above all serve to preserve the Waka, or funeral steles in carved wood that have long been placed on the tombs of Konso clan chiefs.

These rare carvings have long been easy prey for arts traffickers and tomb raiders without scruples who sell them abroad for a few thousand euros apiece.

Ethiopian customs agents have since 1996 impounded more than 200 of the statues, often the size of a man, but no system of conservation was put in place until a French ambassador went to the Konso region.

“It was pure chance, I was on my way back with colleagues from a paleontological site,” said Stephane Gompertz, the former ambassador who is now the Africa director at the French foreign ministry.

“We visited Konso villages and from there, we were taken to see the premises of the cultural office and the police station where they kept the Waka stolen from the tombs and recovered by the customs,” he explained.

“Konso officials asked us if we could help them to build a museum to protect these statues,” Gompertz said, emphasising the help that was provided for the project by the Museum of Primitive Arts on the Quai Branly in Paris.

The Waka are traditionally placed on the tombs of chiefs or of tribal heroes, recognised for their feats of valour in hunting and in war.

“The Waka are made of very tough woods like acacia, and can last for 200 years,” said Denote Kusia Shenkri, a Konso elder. “But when they are taken or rot, then the spirit of the dead man flies away. It can’t be replaced because the Konso believe that you only die once.”

The museum is a vast edifice constructed in the spirit of the Konso culture, renowned for its fortifications built around villages, its farming terraces and its tukuls, which are round huts with thatched roofs.

“I thought it mattered to take inspiration from local traditions so that the Konso think of the building as their own and help in the construction,” said architect Thierry Begat, who conceived the building that took three years to build.

The total budget is €120 000, with France paying two-thirds and the rest provided by the Konso.

Wearing a tall blue turban, Kala Gesagn Woldedawit, the traditional leader of the Konso, is proud of the creation of the museum, especially since “there will be fewer and fewer Waka”.

“The Waka are stolen, and thus there are no more heroes, because there are no wild beasts nor enemies to kill. So this museum is important for keeping up our old traditions and future generations will be able to see the Waka and understand our traditions.”

“Even if the Waka are no longer in their original place, they can have a strong symbolic significance and here they will be well looked after,” the chief added.

Ethiopia’s junior culture minister, Mahamouda Gaas, stressed that the “museum is only a first step, since our goal is that the Konso culture be recognised as a world heritage by Unesco.”

The Waka museum has opened at a time when Ethiopia — on an aggressive campaign to boost tourism figures — is opening its south to visitors, like it long has its north with the Orthodox churches carved in the rock at Lalibela, the Gondar castles and the Axoum obelisks.

Once seen by the West as a “famine country” thanks to photos of parched land and emaciated children during a devastating drought in the 1980s, the country is slowly emerging as a favoured African tourist hub like its more illustrious southern neighbour Kenya.

“In the course of the past couple of years, tourists have begun to combine the visit of the historic north of Ethiopia with a visit to the south,” said Freddy Hess, who is a tour operator.

The authorities are asphalting the roads, but they have not reached Konso, which is a 12-hour drive from Addis Ababa.

However, Konso chief Kaka Gesagn Woldedawit is optimistic that “tourism brings us lots of opportunities”.

“Trade is developing for our handicrafts, people are employed in the hotels and the restaurants, and even our traditional dancers perform for the tourists. It encourages the young people to stay.” – AFP

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