In Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo (Gotham Books, $26), Vanessa Woods never paints herself a hero. Instead, she’s refreshingly frank about her insecurities, pettiness, jealousies and fears. Somehow she manages to be both funny and illuminating on topics as serious as political corruption and the study of primate behavior.
Early in the book, Woods, a young journalist from Australia who has a passion for chimpanzees, meets primatologist Brian Hare at a chimpanzee sanctuary in Uganda. Hare, who has just received his Ph.D. from Harvard, has come there to study cooperative behavior in chimpanzees and to explore ways to create humane research settings for primates. In a blink, and against Woods’s better judgment, they fall in love. They become engaged, and she follows him to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a place she finds terrifying at first—with good reason. One of the poorest countries in the world, the war-torn nation has an ugly legacy of brutal violence in its battle zones.
Hare is drawn there by the chance to do research at Lola ya Bonobo, a sanctuary just outside Kinshasa that is home to dozens of bonobos who have been orphaned by the bush meat trade. Once wrongly described as “pygmy chimps,” bonobos are close evolutionary cousins to chimpanzees (and to us), but they are much more peaceful. Indigenous only to Congo, they evolved in settings with abundant food and no competition from other primates. Affectionate sex is their social lubricant—a trait that can make behavioral research with them, well, unusual.
Hare wants to find out how the cooperative behavior of bonobos compares with that of chimpanzees. Because bonobos are wary of men, Woods helps him carry out the experiments he conducts during repeated visits to Congo. She forms strong attachments to several of the bonobos, and her portrayals of these individuals are memorable and moving.
Woods finds a hero in the woman who founded the sanctuary, conservationist Claudine André. André is battling illegal trade in bonobos and working toward establishing a way for the bonobos from the sanctuary to be safely released into the wild. Woods gets involved in these causes. She also begins to design bonobo studies of her own as she seeks to better understand the world’s most highly endangered apes. As she shares her personal journey in the book, Woods deftly weaves in what she learns of Congo’s history and current problems.
I came away from this memoir with a better understanding of bonobos and of the land they live in—and with a new way to think of myself. Now, on days when I find myself vigorously defending my territory—intellectual, emotional or physical—I realize that I’m working my inner chimpanzee. But those days when I breathe deeply and commune with all that’s beautiful around me, I’m all bonobo. Thank you, Vanessa Woods, for reminding me that that second spot is a very nice place to be.