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
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
of Love and Adventure in the Congo.
Woods's memoir, however, offers more than just adventure and
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
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
What later brought Woods to the Congo was a man: PhD researcher
Brian Hare. After a whirlwind romance, Hare proposes, sweeps
off her feet, and brings her to the bonobo sanctuary Lola ya
smack-dab in the middle of the Congo War.
Daughter of a Vietnam veteran, Woods had her own indirect brush
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
Asia, where he teaches young men landscape gardening. "There were
nights when he would barricade himself in the bedroom, stacking
the furniture against the door, making machine-gun noises and
hollering for backup."
So while Hare goes to Congo to study the cooperation and
of bonobos, Woods hopes to find out what happened to her dad.
is so intent on finding out the answer that, immediately after
arriving in the country, she asks a Congolese man she just met
he knows of the war. Seeing how his eyes respond, Woods laments,
trail off, feeling clumsy. It occurs to me what a raw, brutal
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
captures her heart.For bonobos, sex for pleasure is rampant - and
often happens with a same-sex partner. Sexual organs are
and touched as often as humans offer their hands for shaking.
eat like the French, daintily, unconcerned with the passing
They love apples, are wary of males, and fear doors. They are
female-dominated and babies rule the food roost. They are
And what's more, the people at Lola are full of jokes and
- which baffles Woods. Confused, she asks herself early on, "Did
I read the news right? Didn't millions of people die here, like,
But despite the tragedy, Lola is full of interesting characters
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
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
an unintentional, spot-on impression of Derek Zoolander. …