Books: Bonobo Handshake

When we meet Vanessa Woods, she is a naïve, love-struck twenty-something preparing to follow her fiancé, Brian Hare (now her husband and an assistant professor of anthropology at Duke), to Africa, where they will research primate behavior. Caught up in the romance of a budding relationship, she writes: “I pictured us in matching safari outfits, striding through the Ngamba forest, baby chimpanzees dangling from our arms. I would make insightful and intelligent comments that would revolutionize his research. He would introduce me as the inspiration behind his ideas.”

But there has been a change of plans. Brian has suddenly become fascinated with our other close primate relatives, the bonobos. Instead of Ngamba, they fly to Kinshasa in Congo, a country ravaged by war, famine, political instability, and genocide. Woods describes staring at Hare as he snores peacefully next to her on the evening before their departure, wondering whether she is about to make the biggest mistake of her life. So begins Bonobo Handshake, a memoir that is alternately hopeful and heartbreaking.

Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo, by Vanessa Woods.

Gotham Books, 2010.

278 pages.


Woods started out as a research assistant at the Max Planck Institute before becoming a research scientist at Duke, where we became friends. Today she helps Hare study primate behavior at Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary near Kinshasa, a refuge for rescued bonobos that have lost their parents to the bush-meat trade. Because the region lacks agricultural infrastructure, many people search for protein in the forest, and bonobos are frequently targeted. However, they are also protected, so meat is confiscated from hunters, and recovered orphans are sent to Lola.

In bonobo communities, the females reign supreme, and conflicts are resolved through sex rather than violence. Just as Jane Goodall documented the antics of now-famous chimpanzees like David Greybeard and Frodo, Woods introduces us to the world of “Empress” Mimi, mischievous and lovable Malou, and little Lodja, a young female who charms everyone with her red lips and long eyelashes.

Woods describes the details of conducting research alongside her husband, including the unusual, often humorous challenges that arise while working with an animal that famously approaches sex as easily as humans approach a handshake. Although bonobos are endangered and often ignored, they are genetically very similar to humans. Because of this, scientists believe that studying them may illuminate our understanding of compassion, violence, and altruism in our own species.

In one memorable instance, an orphan called Bandaka mercilessly teases and torments Lodja. Later, when he is punished by an older female, Lodja comes to his defense and comforts him with a kiss. Throughout the book, bonobos frequently exhibit behavior so moving and expressive that they quickly become characters rather than mere study subjects.

Yet there is a lot more to this memoir than conservation and science. Woods gradually exposes an unsettling and, at times, devastating side of Congo. Logging and the hunt for limited resources such as diamonds, tin, and cobalt by outsiders have led to the destruction of the Congolese rainforest where bonobos live. More recently, an international rush to the region in pursuit of the mineral coltan—required to power our laptops and cell phones—has placed ever more pressure on this vulnerable population.

As Woods learns about Congo, she relays what has occurred there through horrifying personal accounts from people she meets. In one harrowing instance, a mother is raped and tortured before her daughters are drowned and eaten in front of her by soldiers. These stories will haunt readers long after they put the book down. Woods does not delve deeply into politics but provides enough history to make Kinshasa come alive for those of us who have never traveled there.

My favorite aspect of Bonobo Handshake is how intimately it is written; Woods is not afraid to reveal sides of herself that most authors avoid. While it is easy to admire her courage and wit, she also shares her personal flaws, candidly describing difficulties in her marriage. For instance, after a whirlwind romantic courtship, challenges arise when she suddenly finds herself working for her spouse. The result is a fully realized and trustworthy narrator with many dimensions.

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