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.
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.
There’s lanky, boyish Isiro and the male she loves – handsome, muscular Mikeno. There’s the perfectly groomed bonobo Max who does an unintentional, spot-on impression of Derek Zoolander. (“Max,” she asks him, “[H]ave you ever wondered if there was more to life than being really really ridiculously good-looking?”) There’s also Mimi, the female alpha who runs the show; Malou, the infant bonobo who takes a liking to Hare; and Tatango, the bonobo who acts too chimplike and ends up being “corrected” by the females.
Woods opens up the bonobo world to us in a refreshingly simple but deep prose. As Isiro and Mikeno share a sensual moment on Lola’s grounds and Hare swings Malou around in circles by her arms, we recognize ourselves in these bonobos and we fall in love with all of them.
Woods herself becomes a friend – occasionally an exasperating, overly dramatic friend, but one to whom we are indebted for sharing such a heart-wrenching story.
Woods intersperses days of living with the bonobos with descriptions of the kinds of research they are doing, studying examples of cooperation, tolerance, and altruism among the bonobos.
Tucked between chapters of experiments, lovemaking, and delightful bonobo quirks is a more difficult topic: war in the Congo.
Woods’s book is peppered with the country’s difficult history, often told alongside firsthand accounts of the war. She talks of people being eaten, children slaughtered, mothers raped, and villagers drowned and tortured as soldiers ransack their towns. She reports that 4 million people died in the Congo by 2005, and reminds us that the Congo isn’t the only place where horrors happen: Woods notes that worldwide 80 percent of all people live on less than $10 a day; that, since 1945, there have been only 26 days without war; and that in America, 1 in 10 people live in poverty.
This juxtaposition of the peaceful bonobos and their war-torn country is ironic and sometimes makes for an odd read. Our emotions flip between amused and shocked, laughing and horrified, as chapters on bonobo antics bump up against chapters on beheadings and ambushes.
It is clear that Woods expects us to be shocked, as she was, by the war stories. And her book carries a message to all of us. “Ignorance is not an excuse forever,” she tells herself and the reader, describing how many of the Congo’s metals and minerals (used in our tech devices like cellphones and computers) have sparked conflict. “I fueled the war. I funded it. The second Congo War, with more dead than any other war since World War II, is on my hands.”
She also advocates for the bonobos, a race that, somehow, lives in peace. “If we lose bonobos,” she implores us, “we will never learn their secret. And even more tragically, because they share much of what makes us human, we will never understand ourselves.”
This moving story offers Western readers a reality check into the sobering world outside their safer homes and cities – where bad things still can and do happen, yes, but on a different scale.
Woods show us a broken country full of a people and a species that are, against the odds, brave, full of promise, and optimistic.
And though we hear the story thirdhand, though we may not have seen the results of war with our own eyes, and though we haven’t held a bonobo in our own arms, by the book’s end we’ve fallen for these people and these creatures just as Woods has.
Dense, thoughtful, and at once playful and terribly harsh, “Bonobo Handshake” tells us a story we need to know.
Kate Vander Wiede is a writer at Boston’s South End News.