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Bonobo Handshake

Researcher Vanessa Woods shares a tale about a species that can teach all of us a thing or two about peace.

By Kate Vander Wiede / June 9, 2010

Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo By Vanessa Woods Gotham 278 pp., $26

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The Congo, home to a devastating war and what is often reported to be a broken people, is also the domain of something entirely lighthearted: a peaceful species called the bonobos. Not widely known, researched, or spoken of, these bonobos are the delightful subjects of Vanessa Woods’s newest book, Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo.

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Woods’s memoir, however, offers more than just adventure and love. A late-in-life coming-of-age story, “Bonobo Handshake” touches on redemption, the war and history of the Congo, anthropological science, research and its ethics, sex, and, principally, bonobos – one of humanity’s closest living relatives.

No stranger to writing about animals and the humans who observe them, Woods wrote “It’s Every Monkey for Themselves” in 2007, a memoir about living with eight researchers in a small space while studying wild chimpanzees in Costa Rica.

What later brought Woods to the Congo was a man: PhD researcher Brian Hare. After a whirlwind romance, Hare proposes, sweeps Woods off her feet, and brings her to the bonobo sanctuary Lola ya Bonobo, smack-dab in the middle of the Congo War.

Daughter of a Vietnam veteran, Woods had her own indirect brush with war as she was growing up.

“To say he came back shattered doesn’t really cover it,” she says of her father, who eventually abandoned her family for Southeast Asia, where he teaches young men landscape gardening. “There were nights when he would barricade himself in the bedroom, stacking up the furniture against the door, making machine-gun noises and hollering for backup.”

So while Hare goes to Congo to study the cooperation and tolerance of bonobos, Woods hopes to find out what happened to her dad. (Woods is so intent on finding out the answer that, immediately after arriving in the country, she asks a Congolese man she just met what he knows of the war. Seeing how his eyes respond, Woods laments, “I trail off, feeling clumsy. It occurs to me what a raw, brutal demand I have made of this man, a stranger.”)

It becomes clear that the Congo won’t provide answers to her impossible question, but what Woods finds instead is a species that captures her heart.
For bonobos, sex for pleasure is rampant – and often happens with a same-sex partner. Sexual organs are presented and touched as often as humans offer their hands for shaking. Bonobos eat like the French, daintily, unconcerned with the passing hours. They love apples, are wary of males, and fear doors. They are female-dominated and babies rule the food roost. They are cooperative and tolerant.

And what’s more, the people at Lola are full of jokes and laughter – which baffles Woods. Confused, she asks herself early on, “Did I read the news right? Didn’t millions of people die here, like, yesterday?”

But despite the tragedy, Lola is full of interesting characters who are building happy lives. There are the Mamas – sarcastic, funny Congolese women who raise each bonobo infant at Lola; Hare, her data-oriented, loving, and difficult fiancé; and Jacques, a former gold miner, soldier, and prison guard who saw the horrors of the Congo War firsthand and now works for Claudine, the enchantingly calm, copper-haired owner of the sanctuary.

And then there are the bonobos themselves.

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