Wiede, Kate Vander, The Christian Science Monitor
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
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 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,
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. …