Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo

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Overview

In 2005, Vanessa Woods accepted a marriage proposal from a man she barely knew and agreed to join him on a research trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country reeling from a brutal decade-long war that had claimed the lives of millions. Settling in at a bonobo sanctuary in Congo's capital, Vanessa and her fiancé entered the world of a rare ape with whom we share 98.7 percent of our DNA. She soon discovered that many of the inhabitants of the sanctuary—ape and human alike—are refugees from unspeakable ...
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Overview

In 2005, Vanessa Woods accepted a marriage proposal from a man she barely knew and agreed to join him on a research trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country reeling from a brutal decade-long war that had claimed the lives of millions. Settling in at a bonobo sanctuary in Congo's capital, Vanessa and her fiancé entered the world of a rare ape with whom we share 98.7 percent of our DNA. She soon discovered that many of the inhabitants of the sanctuary—ape and human alike—are refugees from unspeakable violence, yet bonobos live in a peaceful society in which females are in charge, war is nonexistent, and sex is as common and friendly as a handshake.

A fascinating memoir of hope and adventure, Bonobo Handshake traces Woods's self-discovery as she finds herself falling deeply in love with her husband, the apes, and her new surroundings while probing life's greatest question: What ultimately makes us human? Courageous and extraordinary, this true story of revelation and transformation in a fragile corner of Africa is about looking past the differences between animals and ourselves, and finding in them the same extraordinary courage and will to survive. For Vanessa, it is about finding her own path as a writer and scientist, falling in love, and finding a home.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Devoted to learning more about bonobos, a smaller, more peaceable species of primate than chimpanzees, and lesser known, Australian journalist Woods and her fiancé, scientist Brian Hare, conducted research in the bonobos' only known habitat—civil war-torn Congo. Woods's plainspoken, unadorned account traces the couple's work at Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary, located outside Kinshasa in the 75-acre forested grounds of what was once Congo dictator Mobutu Sese Seko's weekend retreat. The sanctuary, founded in 1994 and run by French activist Claudine André, served as an orphanage for baby bonobos, left for dead after their parents had been hunted for bush meat; the sanctuary healed and nurtured them (assigning each a human caretaker called a mama), with the aim of reintroducing the animals to the wild. Hare had only previously conducted research on the more warlike, male-dominated chimpanzee, and needed Woods because she spoke French and won the animals' trust; through their daily work, the couple witnessed with astonishment how the matriarchal bonobo society cooperated nicely using frequent sex, and could even inspire human behavior. When Woods describes her daily interaction with the bonobos, her account takes on a warm charm. Woods's personable, accessible work about bonobos elucidates the marvelous intelligence and tolerance of this gentle cousin to humans. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
A bright, informative memoir of a young woman's first encounters with love, marriage and the world's most endangered ape. Journalist and research assistant Woods took a romantic plunge in her late 20s, joining her fiance Brian on his quest to discover what makes us human by studying bonobos, a species of chimpanzee found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The couple worked and lived at the resort-like Lola ya Bonobo, a former presidential retreat that is now the world's only sanctuary for orphaned bonobos, located in Kinshasa, the Congo capital. There, she grew close to sanctuary founder Claudine Andre and the four women called the "Mamas" who care for the chimps, and gradually fell in love with the more than 60 trusting bonobos. The animals, which look just like chimpanzees and share 98.7 percent of human DNA, have been largely ignored by scientists and the media, except in the 1980s, when the primates were dubbed "the ‘make love not war' hippie ape" after a researcher reported on their frequent sexual behavior. The bonobos-estimated at 10,000 to 40,000 in number-are frequently hunted for their meat. Woods writes candidly about playing with the animals while covered in feces and mango slime; squabbling with her new husband; and interviewing locals about the Congo's recent history of warfare to better understand her estranged father, a Vietnam War veteran. When violence broke out in 2006, the author helped her husband study the bonobos, who live quite peacefully compared to the more pugnacious chimpanzees. Their research, covered in Time and elsewhere, suggests that bonobos cooperate better than chimpanzees because they are more tolerant of one another, and because they play andhave sex a lot. Brian also discovered evidence of altruism, a human trait, in bonobos, leading Woods to observe that the primates share much that makes us human and may "hold the key to a world without war."The bonobos have found their advocate. Agent: Max Brockman/Brockman, Inc.
Publishers Weekly
Woods recounts her otherworldly experience of visiting a bonobo sanctuary in civil war–torn Congo in 2005. Stepping into the sanctuary, where healing abounds and the matriarchal community of bonobos has much to teach their animal caretakers, Woods finds her life forever altered. Justine Eyre displays her wide-ranging vocal ability as she slips effortlessly into Woods’s Australian accent, while peppering the reading with pitch-perfect African and French portrayals. Eyre recreates the scenes like a visual artist, nuanced shifts in her voice as planned out as every stroke of a brush. It’s easy to get lost in the story and hard to bring oneself back from this idyll. A Gotham hardcover (Reviews, Mar. 8). (May)
From the Publisher
"Don't think that this is just a book about apes. It's a love story, an adventure story, and a political education about a country that has seen more tragedy and inhumanity than you can imagine." —-Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400197453
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/31/2010
  • Format: Library Binding

Meet the Author

Vanessa Woods

Vanessa Woods is a research scientist, journalist, and author of children's books. A member of the Hominoid Psychology Research Group, her first book is It's Every Monkey for Themselves.

Justine Eyre is a classically trained actress who has narrated over two hundred audiobooks. With a prestigious Audie Award and four AudioFile Earphones Awards under her belt, Justine is multilingual and is known for her great facility with accents. Her recent television credits include Two and a Half Men and Mad Men.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 10, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Courtesy of Mother Daughter Book Club.com

    For me a great memoir does more than tells a personal story. It also engages both my emotions and my intellect and leaves me wanting to know more about the author and what she writes about. Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods, delivers on all counts.

    The book opens with Woods in crisis as she is about to board a plane with her fiancé from Paris to Kinshasa, Congo, where she will stay at a sanctuary for orphan bonobos. While most of us have heard of chimpanzees and know about their plight, far fewer people are aware of bonobos, even though they are more endangered than chimps. Like chimps, bonobos carry a good portion of the same DNA we do. Unlike chimps, bonobos are peace loving, female-dominated, and very sexual.

    Most of us also know that Congo is a dangerous place where women are raped, children are conscripted to fight, and millions of people have died at the hands of various rebels and government groups in the last decade. It is part of deepest, darkest Africa, with plenty of disease and other natural threats to add to the human ones. Few outsiders find compelling reasons to linger for any amount of time. Even fewer spend time to truly understand the nature of the various factions and conflicts.

    Yet Woods and her fiancé, then husband, go back again and again over several years to work with the bonobos, hoping to gain scientific knowledge of how these apes are wired, and possibly learn how humans can benefit knowing more about them.

    Bonobo Handshake is a story of love, politics and science woven around the details of Woods' personal story, the story of apes, tales of Congo and other African countries, and accounts of scientific research. The narrative flows effortlessly from one topic to another. Woods is not afraid to show her weaknesses, and if anything she downplays her own courage while highlighting the everyday bravery of those who live and work full time in the Congo on behalf of bonobos.

    I was fascinated from the first page to the last, and I was glad to see resources for more information included at the end of the book. Mother-daughter book club members may want to consider the active sex lives of the bonobos before choosing this as a group read, but there is much that girls aged 16 and up and adults can learn from Bonobo Handshake. I highly recommend it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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