Konso people


Konso / Xonsita

The Konso, also known as the Xonsita, are a Lowland East Cushitic-speaking ethnic group primarily inhabiting south-central Ethiopia.

Identification. The Konso are comprised of three groups living in southern Ethiopia—the Garati, the Takadi, and the Turo—that speak three very similar dialects. The name "Konso" may have been given to them by outsiders, such as the Borana Galla: it resembles the name of a very prominent hill overlooking two of the most important markets, which have a long history of trade with the Borana and the Arussi.

Location. The Konso mainly reside in Ethiopia's Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region, south of Lake Chamo in the Sagan River bend. Many are concentrated in the Konso special woreda. Their territory is adjacent to Omotic, Sidama and Oromo communities.

Konso typically live in large towns, each governed by a council of elders. A few can also be found in parts of northern Kenya.

Konso people map

The area of cultivation is approximately 650 square kilometers, and the elevation ranges from about 410 to 545 meters. Annual rainfall is about 66 centimeters, and there are two rainy seasons, one from February to May, and the other from October to December. The climate is dry montane, and temperatures vary from below 16° C at night in the higher regions during the rainy seasons to over 32° C in the lower regions during the dry seasons. Until the arrival of firearms, elephants and rhinoceroses were common in the lowlands; they have long since disappeared, but lions and leopards, crocodiles, pythons, ostriches, zebra, hyenas, and monkeys still exist there, as well as a variety of other animals, such as wild pigs and several species of the deer family. Bird life occurs in numerous forms, including guinea fowl and francolins.

Demography. According to the 2007 Ethiopian national census, the Konso numbered 250,430 individuals, of whom 10,470 or 4.18% are urban dwellers. Over 87% live in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Konso language is a member of the East Cushitic Family, Lowland Group. The Konso speak the Konso language (also known as affa xonso) as a mother tongue. It belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. Konso is divided into four dialects: Kholme, Duuro, Fasha and Karatti. It shares a close lexical similarity with Dirasha, and is today transcribed using the Ethiopic script.

Konso People


Konso traditions suggest a complex pattern of migration into their present territory over the last thousand years, but the predominant cultural influence has been that of the Borana. Close similarities also exist with the neighboring Gauwada, G idole, and Burji. The Konso were conquered by the army of Emperor Menelik II in 1897, and since that time have been subject to the Ethiopian state. No attempt was made to convert them to Coptic Christianity, however, and government authority has been limited to collecting taxes, preventing warfare, and the introduction of Ethiopian courts of law and police. The inclusion of the Konso within the Ethiopian state encouraged the growth of trade and the use of money, but markets are an ancient feature of Konso society, and they have long been familiar with salt-bar currency and the Maria Theresa dollar. Salt was the most significant import in precolonial times; it was exchanged for coffee and craft products. The Norwegian Lutheran Mission arrived in 1954 and established a school and clinic; a government school was also established a few years later. Until about the mid-1960s, road communications were poor, and the Konso were consequently isolated from social developments in other parts of Ethiopia. Major roadworks were undertaken in the mid-1980s.

Konso People


The Konso live in about thirty-five walled towns, with average populations of 1,500 and a maximum of about 3,000, covering from 6 to 14 hectares, often on the summits of hills or at other easily defensible sites. The walls are without mortar, 3.0 to 4.5 meters high; they are intended only to deter a surprise attack, not to resist a siege. They are usually surrounded by a dense belt of vegetation as a further deterrent to attack. Each town is separated into two divisions, and a man who is born in one is forbidden to live in the other. The divisions have no other social function, however. They are divided into wards, which may contain twenty to eighty homesteads. The average population of a homestead is five, comprising a married man, his wife, and their children. Homesteads are always on two levels; ideally, the upper level is for humans and the lower level for animals. Each homestead contains sleeping huts, kitchen, granaries, and animal stalls and is surrounded by a wooden fence. These fences form continuous walls along the paths within the towns. There are also numerous public meeting places (at least one for each ward), where men sit during the day and where ceremonies take place. Each public place has a men's house, where the married men usually sleep at night, together with the bachelors, but these houses are unoccupied during the day.

Konso People


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Konso are intensive agriculturists, using animal and human manure and terracing to preserve the soil. Two-pronged hoes and digging sticks are the main agricultural implements. The principal crops on the lower slopes are sorghum, of which at least twenty-four varieties are grown, and maize; on higher ground, the staple crops are wheat and barley. The Konso also grow peas, chick-peas, beans, finger millet, yams, taro, Indian turnips ( Araceae arisaema ), and another tuber, Taccaceae ( Tacca involucrata ). Tree foliage is an extremely important source of food and the Moringaceae ( Moringa stenopetala ) is cultivated for this purpose at each homestead. Ensete ( Ensete edulis, or "false banana") is grown, but is of little importance. Honey is collected from hives that the Konso place in trees. Cotton is of great economic importance, tobacco is popular, and coffee is also grown. Cattle, sheep, and goats are raised, but the little milk that is produced is made into butter or given to the children. Chickens have always been kept, but only for their feathers. All birds and eggs are forbidden foods, as are most wild animals and fish. Hunting for food and collecting are of little or no significance.

Industrial Arts. The basic crafts are ironworking, weaving, pottery making, and tanning, and their practitioners form a despised hereditary caste. Men work as smiths and weavers, their wives as potters and tanners. There is no restriction on smiths becoming weavers or vice versa, and the same is true of potters and tanners. The spinning of cotton is practiced freely by all men who choose to do so, and some farmers have taken up weaving, to general disapproval. The artisans have never owned land, and intermarriage with farmers is forbidden them. There is no residential segregation of artisans, however, and in dress and appearance they resemble the farmers. Woodworking, including the making of bowls, troughs, and beehives and the carving of memorial statues, is practiced by farmers. Baskets are also made, and gourds are widely used as containers.

Trade. A traditional market is held every day at a different location, outside one of the towns. Here the artisans sell their wares, and farmers also sell grain, tree foliage, honey, butter, and other agricultural produce. Animals are slaughtered for meat at these markets; in the past, only artisans were butchers, as the slaughter of animals for sale rather than ceremonial use was deprecated. The Borana and Arussi Galla often attend these markets, to which they traditionally brought salt in exchange for coffee and craft products.

Division of Labor. Iron working, weaving, building houses, collecting honey, repairing terraces, tending livestock, felling trees, and all other heavy or dangerous outdoor work are male activities. Pottery, tanning, fetching water, preparing food (especially beer), and child rearing are female activities. Men and women both work in the fields, but threshing wheat and barley and bird scaring in the harvest season are male activities. Men and women both attend markets as vendors and purchasers.

Land Tenure. Land may be owned and inherited only by men, although women may rent it if they are widowed. Plots of land are owned individually and may be bought and sold.

Konso People


Kin Groups and Descent. The Konso are divided into nine dispersed patrilineal exogamous clans, which form three groups associated with God, the Earth, and the Wild. It is likely that in the past they were of segmentary organization, as is the case with other East Cushitic peoples, but nowadays there are no remembered genealogical links between the clan and the component lineages. The head of each lineage is the pogalla (pl. pogallada ), who is descended by primogeniture from a known founder. The pogalla is responsible for blessing the lineage, for settling disputes between its members, and for representing them in disputes with members of other lineages. He is usually wealthier than most of its other members, because eldest sons inherit twice the share of their brothers. Both the pogalla and other wealthy members of the lineage may be called upon to assist poorer members, and the lineage will help to pay any fines imposed on members by the town. The Konso say that lineage members do not like to live close together, and there is a clear tendency for them to live some distance apart, often in different wards. Many accusations of witchcraft are made between members of the same lineage.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Omaha type.

Konso People

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Polygyny is permitted, but only about 10 percent of Konso men have sufficient wealth to support more than one wife. There is also considerable jealousy between cowives, who have separate establishments. Marriages are arranged by parents but, usually, only at the request of the young man and with the consent of the girl. Bride-wealth is not an important aspect of marriage and is not thought of as a compensation for rights over the bride or her children transferred in marriage, but only as establishing friendship between the groom and his father-in-law. Divorce is easy in theory, but in practice it seems to be rare. For the Konso who live in Garati, all parallel-cousin marriage is prohibited, but marriage is allowed with cross cousins as long as they are not eldest daughters, whereas in Takadi and Turo, all cross-cousin marriage is forbidden, as well as all parallel-cousin marriage. A man may marry his deceased wife's sister, and a woman whose husband dies may marry his brother, but if the husband was an eldest son who died without an heir, his wife is expected to bear a son in his name by one of his brothers. The wife of a pogalla is not supposed to marry again. More than 50 percent of marriages take place within the town, and those outside the town are with members of friendly towns near at hand. Residence is patrilocal.

Domestic Unit. The domestic group of husband, wife, and children is the basic unit of production. The eldest son lives in his father's homestead after marriage, but younger sons are expected to set up new homes after they marry. In polygynous marriages, the senior wife lives in her husband's homestead, but junior wives have separate establishments, where they live with their children and are visited periodically by their husband. The family is under the authority of the husband.

Inheritance. Property is inheritable only within the lineage. The eldest son inherits his father's homestead and twice the share of land that is inherited by each of his younger brothers. If a man dies without heirs, the nearest male relative within the lineage will inherit. Women cannot inherit any form of property, nor can they transmit property rights.

Socialization. The mother is primarily responsible for disciplining the children, and her brothers may also punish them. The relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is more relaxed than that between parents and children, yet great respect is given to the grandfather in particular. Older siblings, usually sisters, are delegated to look after small children, and, given the crowded and populous nature of Konso towns, it is easy for children to play together in groups. Adolescent boys sleep in the men's houses with the older married men, where they become acquainted with Konso traditions.

Konso People

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Although wealth is admired, Konso society is basically egalitarian, and the only major difference of status is that between farmers and artisans. Generational seniority, rather than inherited status or kinship, is the most important principle of Konso social organization, although the pogalla is greatly respected. Each region has its own System of age grouping, according to which a man enters the system a fixed number of grades behind that of his father, rather than being automatically initiated into the most junior grade. After a fixed period of years, everyone is promoted simultaneously into the next grade. In Garati, this interval is eighteen years, in Takadi nine, and in Turo five. This type of age-grouping system is known as gada and is distinctive of peoples speaking East Cushitic languages. The systems stratify society into three categories: boys, not allowed to marry or to take part in councils; warriors, who may marry and take a junior part in councils; and elders, whose functions are judicial and religious. The systems are primarily concerned with men rather than women; women are excluded from the Takadi and Turo systems once they have reached the grade in which marriage is allowed, and although in Garati they retain the same grades as men, this is only in relation to their maternal role. The members of each grade are grouped into age sets, but every town has its own sets, and the grades are not corporate groups.

Political Organization. Each region has a priest, who lives in isolation, and whose function it is to bless the towns of his region and to perform the ceremonies that are associated with the gada system. In the past, when warfare broke out between towns, he would send his deputies, drawn from the most important lineage heads of the region, to run between the opposing warriors and cast down their staves, and, ideally, this was supposed to prevent further fighting. The regional priests lacked political authority, however, and the towns were autonomous units in this respect. Each town has a council of elders, drawn from the ward councils. Councilors are elected informally on the basis of their personal qualities, and traditionally they acted as a court to hear civil and criminal cases.

Social Control. Formerly, thieves could be punished by whipping or, in extreme cases, by execution, administered by the warriors. Today, however, the Ethiopian courts have taken over much of the administration of justice, but towns still fine those who disturb the peace by quarreling or by other antisocial behavior. Expulsion from the town is another sanction that was traditionally employed. Those who are quarrelsome or uncooperative, especially to fellow ward members, may be ostracized and denied help—for example, in the form of fetching water in time of sickness or burying their dead—by the ward. Civil claims for compensation are also the responsibility of the councils. In some towns there is an annual ceremony at which leaders from both elders' and warriors' grades exhort their fellow townsmen to behave responsibly and to respect traditional values. These values emphasize peace and truth above all else, and public opinion is an extremely powerful force in maintaining them. The Ethiopian government has authorized a headman ( balabbat ) in each town, who is always an important lineage head. He has no real authority, but the Konso consider him their chosen representative in dealings with the government.

Conflict. The Konso admire bravery, and in the public places there are many "stones of manhood" commemorating victories over other towns. They believe that conflict displeases Waga, the Sky God, however, and that blood defiles the earth; therefore warfare and violence should be resolved by ceremonial reconciliation. Barbed spears are forbidden, and although the Konso are familiar with bows and arrows, these have never been made. Only in rare instances were towns burned during warfare, which was conducted with spears and stones in the open fields. Towns formed stable alliances for military purposes. Homicide was the only crime that could not be punished or expiated by compensation. The victim's closest agnates had the duty of killing the murderer, and this act of vengeance was supposed to settle the matter and not produce a feud.

Konso People

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Waga, the Sky God, is believed by many to have created humans in the beginning, and each person at conception. He once lived on earth among the Konso, but he was offended by a woman and so went to live far away. He is still concerned with human affairs, however, and he punishes sinners with sickness, sterility, and death and may even withhold rain from towns in which there is too much quarreling. The elders are God's deputies on earth. There is no idea of private prayer to God; his benefits are requested by the performance of ritual. Opposed to God are many evil spirits, who live in the lowlands and under certain trees and also in the vicinity of the towns, where they are especially active at night. They can cause insanity and sickness, and some people are said to be possessed by them, and, in consequence, they, too, are feared. Another kind of spirit, not considered evil but potentially dangerous if annoyed, lives in wells. The Konso also believe that the soul survives death as a ghost and retains some contact with the living, mainly through the dreams of the lineage head. Ghosts may be heard talking or flapping about at night, and in a few cases they may cause sickness, but there is no cult of the ancestors. To dream of the dead is dangerous for ordinary people and may be an omen of their own death. Beliefs about the evil eye are very important: someone with the evil eye can cause food to stick in the throat, beer to spoil, crops to dry up, and children and calves to refuse to suckle. The motive for use of the evil eye is said to be spite and envy, which can be detected by a habit of praising the fields, stock, or children of others. Many magical substances are used both for hostile and protective purposes. Women are closely associated with the earth, which is a cosmological element, distinct from but complementary to God, who is associated with men. God is not regarded as the creator of the earth, but he nourishes it with rain. Earth is the source of food, whose preparation is exclusively reserved for women, whose symbol on graves and elsewhere is a clay pot. It will be recalled that nine clans are divided into three groups, associated with God, the Earth, and the Wild. God is the source of the social and moral order, whereas the Earth and women supply the physical necessities of life. The Wild is associated with the dangerous forces of spirituality, not only with those of a hostile nature—such as evil spirits and madmen—but also with priests. It is considered dangerous for priests to live in the towns, although most of them now do so, and the most sacred places are always outside the towns and overgrown with wild vegetation that must not be cut.

Religious Practitioners. The main division of Konso religious practitioners is between priests and diviners. The function of priests, always men, is to bless their lineage, ward, town, or region, and this function is performed in public rituals by holders of inherited office. On the other hand, the diviner, who may be female or male, is a private consultant who has acquired occult powers, and his or her advice is sought in secret, not only to discover the mystical source of illness or other misfortunes but also to cast spells on one's enemies. Dream diviners may be priests, but most diviners are feared because it is believed that they are possessed by evil spirits.

Ceremonies. Symbolism and ritual are more important than myths as expressions of the Konso worldview. Almost all rituals involve sacrifice and blessing; they are conducted in sacred places from which women and children are excluded, although they may be spectators. The most elaborate ceremonies occur in the gada system of each region, at the time when everyone is promoted to the next grade. In Takadi, the land is ritually purified of sin in the year after this ceremony. The warrior grade is represented by a dead juniper tree, placed in one or more sacred places in a town, and the erection of these trees is accompanied by a complex ritual. Each year, the pogalla blesses his lineage, their crops, and livestock, and, in Garati, the mothers of those in the warrior grade perform a ceremony to bless their sons, the only occasion on which women assume such a role. In some towns, the men leave the town each year, to hear speeches on good conduct, and then return through a ceremonial gate formed by the most important pogallada holding their staves over the path. This ceremony is regarded as a ritual purification. When a child is born, it is secluded with the mother for three months and then, in a complex ritual, named. Death involves mourning at the house of the family and the digging of the grave by men of the ward; after a few months, a bullock should be sacrificed. Marriage involves very little ceremony.

Arts. Apart from the carving of wooden statues to honor successful men, the Konso have little in the way of art.

Medicine. The Konso have made scant use of plants for medicinal purposes, but they are aware of the technique of variolation as a primitive form of vaccination to prevent smallpox.

Death and Afterlife. The person is comprised of flesh, "vitality" (seen as the pulse), which disappears, and of the soul, which becomes a ghost. There are no rewards or punishments in the afterlife.