When I first heard the word wabi sabi and learned what it means, it felt like an answer to a big, very important existential question. It was a name for my worldview.
This Japanese concept wabi sabi refers to a particular aesthetic which values the beauty of imperfection, of things old, decaying, weathered. A lovingly repaired object, a door whose paint is faded and peeled off by age, use and weather, or a simple and plain design is valued more than a highly ornamented piece.
Wabi-sabi is much more than “beauty of things imperfect.” A wabi sabi attitude is one which embraces the simple, pared down, modest, small and un-ostentatious way of life, and that everything is transitory. Nothing endures. Therefore, inessentials, the need to acquire, to compete, to strive for perfection are eliminated. Less is more.
Why did this concept resonate for me? The values implicit in wabi sabi were not part of any core beliefs of the community, school and wider society in which I was raised.
Bikita’s landscape is flat with small granite outcrops called kopjes
I started seeing the obvious connections to wabi sabi in my life. The early years of my childhood were spent at Bikita Minerals in a mining village some 75 kms from the nearest town of Masvingo, in the south eastern region of Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia. With a population then not exceeding 200 residents, the place was small but its mineral riches were enormous. The village of about 30 houses nestled under a rocky kopje. If you drove down the main road that went through the village, you could easily miss it if, say, you reached into the hamper at your feet to grab a soggy tomato sandwich.
Nobody was there because they wanted to be there – except my dad. My father, a geologist, was attracted by the kind of mine Bikita was. It was a lithium mine, and it boasted one of the world’s largest deposits of this strategic mineral. He was a history buff and had also started excavating an ancient ruin behind our house. This is where he wanted to be.
But for families, amenities were few – tennis courts, a swimming pool, a club where the adults gathered in the bar, the children played pool or table tennis. The men’s jobs were in mining, and this was a mine, and this was a job. You didn’t brag about where you lived. Bikita was something of a hardship post. There were plenty of other mining towns that were larger, closer to urban settlements. The type of upbringing I had was unorthodox, by dint of where I grew up. One learned to be resourceful.
Ruins of 14th Century stone settlements can be found throughout Zimbabwe. One is close to my home in Bikita.
We took advantage of the incredible freedom we had. Life as a child was feral. We feared nothing apart from an encounter with a python or leopard – which we did from time to time. We roamed barefoot around the village, or rode bicycles on the dirt roads and paths that took us into the bush beyond.
We would stop by African traditional villages or farmhouses, to be offered refreshments before returning home as the sun set. We drank water from streams, and ate wild fruit like juicy marula and baobab fruit seeds.
Opposite: The fruit of the marula tree
Home life was all about the basics. Although our life was modest, my parents were not without style or taste. My mother’s garden was created with a vision rather than a plan. It was an organic statement which reflected her understanding of what a garden should be: a lawn for croquet, shady, fragrant trees to spread a blanket under, irregular large beds with a plethora of flowering plants and shrubs; birdbaths for her beloved birds. Lemon, orange and mulberry trees and an enormous vegetable patch stood at the outer edges of the house on all sides merging with the bush beyond. Everything came from cuttings from other people’s gardens. A paradise was created without help from a nursery or any design magazine.
My father matched his wife in this way. He spontaneously created objects of beauty without any visible planning He took wonderful photographs and made pencil and wash drawings for which he made the frames. They were always slightly skewed, but the overall effect of his work was so calming. They revealed a quiet and peaceful inner life. He rated effort over ambition. During those years, I cannot remember shopping for anything but groceries and our school uniforms. My mother sewed our dresses. They were done in a hurry, usually shift-style without shape and certainly no fancy frills A friend in the village knitted our plain sweaters. Meals were always nutritious, with fresh produce, home-cooked.
Wabi Sabi style track in Bikita district, Zimbabwe
Holidays were road trips, with all the imponderables that go with a road trip in the African hinterland – breakdowns, outdated maps, roads that led to nowhere. Sand drifts, flooded bridges and roads, ferries that did not show up to transport us across a river – this was all part of the adventure.
To quote architect, Tadao Ando: Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent. Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered.
I can never resist those tribal artifacts such as old spoons, bowls, and textiles that show original repairs, some form of asymmetry or other imperfection. They speak of the humanity of the craftsperson.