Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo, by Vanessa Woods (New York: Gotham Books, 2010)
"Imagine a relative who thinks sex is like a handshake. Who organizes orgies with their neighbors, doesn't mind if their partner sleeps around, and firmly believes females should be in charge of everything. Now imagine there was a whole tribe of these relatives -- crazy, right? But definitely a lot of fun.
"Compared to chimps, we know hardly anything about bonobos. They are an extremely endangered ape and share 98.7 percent of our DNA. But while chimpanzees live in male-dominated societies with sexual coercion, infanticide, and war, bonobos are peaceful and female dominated; there is no infanticide or war, and sex is used to resolve conflict.
"The question is, how much of us is chimpanzee, how much is bonobo?
"Bonobo Handshake is the memoir of Vanessa Woods's journey to answer these questions. In 2005, she agreed to marry a handsome primatologist who was on the hunt for the answer to the greatest question of all time: What makes us human? Her fiance, Brian Hare, freshly armed with a Ph.D. from Harvard, believed the answer was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country with a jungle three times the size of France, and in an ongoing war. Brian was on a quest to study bonobos, and bonobos only live in the Congo.
"Vanessa goes to live with him at Lola Ya Bonobo, a sanctuary for orphan bonobos in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. The parents of the bonobos were killed by the bushmeat trade and the orphans were sold as pets before they were rescued. Some of them were tortured, with fingers and toes cut off for use in black magic. Others were raised like children in the homes of well-meaning but deluded expatriates. The sanctuary is also full of human refugees searching for respite from a conflict that has killed more than five million people. There Vanessa finds herself -- with no job and no identity, except as Dr. Hare's wife -- trying to turn a fling into a marriage and make sense of the suffering she witnesses. As it becomes clear that the bonobos are wary of men, Vanessa runs all of the experiments, and as she develops deep bonds with the bonobos, she also finds herself deeply in love with her husband and her new surroundings.
Bonobo Handshake is a memoir of science, adventure, love, and finding inspiration where you least expect it. It's about the similarities and extraordinary courage of people and animals and their will to survive. At times heartbreaking and humorous and always intelligent, it is also about a young woman finding her own path as a writer and scientist."
"It's 2:17 A.M. in a Paris hotel room and my sweat is bleeding into the sheets."
OK, but I had pretty high expectations and don't think the book quite lived up to them. In only 26 pages, Woods touches on the usual trials of newly-married life, the plight of the trailing spouse on an overseas assignment, the social and behavioral habits of the bonobo, and the dreadfully underreported, 13-year armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Unfortunately, the end result is that none of these topics really get the in-depth attention you might want. Woods has an engaging, personal, and often very funny writing style, and I'd happily read a longer book about the bonobos or her marriage. As it was, I finished the book feeling like I'd sampled a very tasty appetizer, but it wasn't quite enough to make a meal.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.