Sinana’s journey. The konso tribe.

Konso people are of the Cushitic family who live in the highlands of Konso situated in the south west of Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State. The economy of the Konso rests on an exceptionally intensive agriculture involving irrigation and terracing of mountain slopes. Corn is the staple crop, and cotton and coffee are cash crops. To protect the fields the Konso maintain their cattle in stalls and feed them by hand. They use both the milk and the meat of cattle and the meat of sheep and goats as food, and the animals’ dung is collected for fertiliser. Numerous other animals are taboo as food. Both men and women work in fields. Women particularly are responsible for the most routine agricultural activities such as weeding, bird scaring, harvesting etc in addition to domestic household chores. Studies indicate that Konso women work for an average of 16 hours a day. Konso people are known for their hard working culture and traditional skills in soil and water conservation techniques.

Unlike most Ethiopian peoples, the Konso traditionally live in towns, each governed by an independent council of elders. The social status of all males, and of some females, is defined by a generation-grading system. Although a generation grade supposedly encompasses the men in an entire region, it does not actually function beyond each town’s borders and therefore does not prevent conflicts between towns. Kinship is reckoned in nine existence clans and in lineages that are headed by priests and through which property is inherited. Craftsmen form a distinct social class. Although polygamy is accepted, few men can afford more than one wife.

Due to water shortages and competition over land, the Konso have been migrating out of their traditional areas in to neighbouring regions. There is now a reasonable Konso community in Borena, living alongside the Borena people who are traditionally pastoralists. GOAL Ethiopia works with both the Borena and the Konso in one area in Southern Ethiopia


Sinana is 30 years old and she moved to Dembella village in order to get married at the age of 19. In the past in order to get married, the family chose the partners, however nowadays young people choose for themselves. The average age for a female to get married at is 15, and for males from 18 – 20 years old. Typically the husband-to-be gives 60 birr to the women’s family as a good will gesture.

Sinana came from a large family, with 5 sisters (3 of whom are married) and 3 bothers, all married. She has 6 children herself, 3 boys and 3 girls aged from 1 to 10 years old.

Sinama has a very busy life in her household. She wakes up at approx 5 am. She starts the day by grinding grain in order to prepare kurkufa and cheka. Sinana prepares kurkufa for the families’ breakfast; this is a type of local meal made of maize or sorghum flour mixed with cabbage. Cheka is a local food/drink, made from maize or sorghum flour. There are two types of cheka: alcoholic and non-alcoholic, the latter is meant for children to consume. The alcoholic one is for marketing to earn cash.

For Sinana the cheka she produces has a dual prupose; as food for her family and as a small income generating business. She sells the cheka to local people for 50 cents in a gourd, which is the equivalent of half a litre. Despite the fact that cheka is alcoholic; it is often considered a staple by adults and may be the main food consumed in a day. Sinama also sells eggs; the profit she makes from her petty trading she uses to buy things that are needed for her children and for household items. The cash from the petty trading is in Sinama’s control, however if any cattle are sold the cash from the sale is in the control of her husband. She uses the money to buy clothes and shoes for her and children. Among the household items that she buys is soap; she has attended a non-formal education programme run by GOAL Ethiopia, and personal hygiene is one of the curriculum items. Sinama attended school herself and understand the value of education; all her children of school going age are attending school that is at about 4 km from their house.

When the cheka is made Sinana brings it out to the fields where her husband is working their land with other field workers. The Konso have an association known as debo whereby labourers work each others land and landowner is responsible for providing food and drink for them.

When Sinana returns to her compound she then milks the cows and takes them for grazing. They have 9 cows and 10 sheep and some goats. Sinana is involved in a small savings and credit scheme run by GOAL Ethiopia and benefited from 2 sheep under this scheme. At the end of her loan period she was required to repay the loan to the group revolving fund, thereby making more sheep available for women in the locality. From the milk she makes butter for household consumption. Sinana or her husband would, on occasion, slaughter an animal for meat for the family. The other food items eaten in the household would come from their own agricultural production, predominantly maize and sorghum.

Sinana then collects water. She walks approx 20 minutes to a dry river-bed and spends approx 20 minutes collecting water. As there is no water in the river, a number of holes have been dug into the river-bed to the water table. One hole is approx 1 metre deep; often rubbish has fallen into the hole and Sinama has to remove it before starting to collect water. Initially she has to collect and pour off the dirty water on the top before getting water that is acceptable for her use. The second hole is approx 2 meters deep and Sinama actually climbs down into the hole to collect the water. When Sinama has filled 2 jerry cans with water (50 litres, which weighs 50kg), she straps them to her back and walks back to her compound. As the water is for both the animals and the family, she fetches water twice in a day for her household, generally going the second time in the afternoon, carrying a total of 100kg per day on her back.

Sinana then prepares kurkufa for lunch. Sinana takes food to her husband and the field workers. While she is there she assists the men in weeding the fields, which she then collect and carries on her back to the compound to use it as fodder for the animals. While doing this she also collects firewood.

When Sinama returns to the compound, she leaves the fodder and firewood and goes to fetch the cattle back to the compound. Some of her children are minding the cattle while they graze in the neighbourhood.

Dinner consist of kurkufa, again prepared by Sinana. After feeding her children their dinner she puts them to bed. By this time her husband and the field workers have come back to the house and she feeds them dinner as well. Sinana then prepares things including cheka for the next day and then goes to bed about midnight.

The duration of Sinana’s working day varies according to the season. The family have land some distance away at Yuso (4 hours) so taking food to her husband demands more walking and means that her day is longer. In the dry season, her husband works on land closer to the compound so that she finishes her chores earlier and would go to between 10 and 11 at night.

In this area the major health problems among the community are malaria, colds and fever. When people get sick they attend the local health centre at Teltelle town (17km from their home, accessed by walking there). Sinana has some knowledge about HIV/ AIDS, and maintains the only way of transmission is by having multiple sexual partners. The Konso are polygamous, and Sinana is in fact the second wife of her husband. Both wives live in the same compound. Female Genital Mutilation is not practiced according to Konso culture.

Sinana has a very busy day in her household and she says that she feels sad with such a heavy workload and if she cannot complete all her chores in the day. When this happens her husband is unhappy and shouts at her; he shouts at her a lot. When she manages to complete all her work and things are going well with her husband, she is happy.

Sinana has no religion, though a significant Konso population follow Christian churches, particularly Protestant ones. Her family does however celebrate the Ethiopian holidays of Meskel and Fasika (Easter), however do not relate them to religion, but relate them to the productive seasons of the year.

1 Euro = 23 birr, 1 birr = 100 cens

The quality of the water collected here would be poor and probably not considered as potable by international standards.

Javier Acebal

About the author: Javier Acebal

I'm a photographer based in Dakar (West Africa). I love to document cultures and people! (but also working for tourism industry).

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