Bonobo Handshake

Article excerpt

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

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

books on chimpanzees, Woods previously 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 fiance; 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. …