Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods

A memoir of love and adventure in the Congo.
"I've been warned to expect pillaging, vehicle thefts, carjackings, extra-judicial killings, rapes, kidnapping, ethnic tensions, and continued military operations. Every foreign office I've spoken to said we would definitely be robbed and would almost certainly be killed.
Australian scientist Vanessa Woods thought she had found her true love: chimpanzees. But in a reckless moment, she accepts a marriage proposal from a man she barely knows and agrees to join him on a research trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. All she knows is that they'll be studying bonobos, an extremely endangered species of ape with whom humans share 98% of our DNA.

This was the reason I initially chose to read Bonobo Handshake. I love any sort of animal story and not knowing anything much about bonobos was interested in learning more about them but was soon to discover there was more to this book than I thought. Vanessa Woods skilfully weaves together three separate threads to create a story of personal growth, animal science and history.

With honesty and a wonderful sense of humour she tells of the difficulties of adjusting to marriage in a strange and frightening country, of learning to work alongside her husband in harmony, and her growing love for Congo, its people, and the bonobos.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (once Belgian Congo/Zaire) is the only place in the world where bonoboes live and the santuary at Lola ya Bonobo rescues orphans and captured bonobos and cares for them until they can be released back into a safe and natural environment. These remarkable animals are unique in that they live in a peaceful society based on cooperation and sharing, where females are in charge, war is non-existent, and sex is as common and friendly as a handshake. They're a joy to read about even if some of the stories of the individual bonobos are heartbreaking.

Then there is the history of Congo which I wasn't expecting but was interesting, informative and often very hard to read. A country constantly exploited for its natural resources, torn apart by genocide, rape, disease and starvation and endless atrocities - when you read the personal tales of the suffering of ordinary men and women it becomes so much more real than a newspaper headline and almost too dreadful to believe.
"I could despair, like every foreigner who understands a fraction of the challenges that have to be overcome. I won't. Because I know the spirit of the Congolese. The Mamas, Suzy, Fanny - all of them have been through so much and yet they are not the walking dead. They are living, and they are living as though they believe they will become free.............the children will bring Congo her future. And I hope it is a bonobo one."
So do I!
Bonobo Handshake is a well written and compelling book which I'd recommend to anyone.

There is a list for further reading, a bibliography and links to websites of interest. The book contains no photographs which was disappointing until I visited Friends of Bonobos where there are plenty of bonobos to see.

Aussie Author Challenge


  1. This is a book I would love to get my hands on. What an interesting subject! It sounds a lot like Jane Goodall's In The Shadow of Man and Diane Fossey's Gorillas in The Mist.

  2. This sounds fascinating. Although reading about the Congo's troubled history must be painful, this sounds like one not to miss.


  3. Trish - it's a little different to those two - less scientific and focused on animal behaviour.

    Stephanie - it was painful reading at times but a very nice litle memoir.

  4. This sounds wonderful. I have a friend travelling in Africa at the moment, so from what she's told me I can imagine how some of the subject matter would be terribly sad. Animals are often much more 'humane' than many humans...