Ethiopian tribe hopes museum and tourism will save its culture

The Konso people of southern Ethiopia live in a remote region, but that hasn’t saved them from grave robbers.

These little-known farmers, who number only about a quarter of a million, have gotten the attention of international art dealers because the Konso honor their dead warriors and hunters with waka, elaborately decorated wooden funeral stele that can be several feet tall. They are a striking example of African art and First World collectors will pay thousands of dollars for them.

But the Konso aren’t selling their ancestors’ monuments, and that’s where the grave robbers come in. Thousands of irreplaceable monuments have been stolen. Ethiopian customs officials have managed to stop about two hundred from leaving the country, but most have disappeared into the collections of wealthy foreigners.

Now with the help of the French government the Konso have opened a museum in their homeland in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region in Ethiopia. This is an area little frequented by tourists, who tend to visit the historic sites of the more developed northern highlands, but the Konso expect that newly paved roads and Ethiopia’s steady rise in foreign visitors will bring more tourists to their area.

The museum will house the waka that have been retrieved from thieves, as well as other tribal arts and crafts. The Konso hope that increased tourism will help keep traditions alive and keep young people from leaving their homeland in search of work in the big cities.

Will opening up the tribe to more tourism help preserve their traditional culture or only end up diluting it? Tell us what you think in the comments section.