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 Vanessa'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?
CommitmentNow.com: Soon after falling in love with you scientist husband Brian, you found yourself in war-torn Congo studying Bonobos – a female dominated, peaceful, loving group of endangered apes. What was this transition like for you?
Vanessa Wood: I found going to Congo quite scary, but the sanctuary, Lola ya Bonobo (www.friendsofbonobos.org) is like a paradise. The bonobos, are quite extraordinary – they are so different to chimps, I found them a little strange. But as I got to know the bonobos, and the sanctuary began to feel like home, Congo became my favourite place in the world!
CommitmentNow.com: Bonobos are 98.7% of humans’, DNA – the same as chimpanzees. So why have most of us never heard of Bonobos?
Vanessa: It is partly because bonobos are so rare. There are as few as 10,000 left in the wild. And they only live in one country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has suffered the bloodiest war since World War II.
But it's also because politicians, scientists, and the media have been trying very hard to pretend they don't exist. Why?
Bonobos have gay sex. For bonobos, sex is a mechanism to reduce tension. And you can't talk about two females rubbing clitorises together until they orgasm in documentaries, intelligent design classes, or to right wing demographics who believe homosexuality is unnatural.
When it comes to scientists, even scientists who I like and admire, only ever refer to 'our closest living relative, the chimpanzee'. There is never any mention that we have TWO closest living relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo.
If scientists do speak about them, they are constantly trying to neuter them. Bonobo researchers get annoyed by bonobos' reputation of being the over sexed ape, and are constantly downplaying the differences between bonobos and chimps.
As for politicians, bonobos never had a chance. Acknowledging the existence of an ape who shares 98.7% of our DNA (suggesting descent with modification i.e. evolution), has homosexual interactions, and is female dominated, is completely out of the question.
Microsoft spell check doesn't even register 'bonobo' as a word.
And so bonobos have remained, locked in the cupboard like an embarrassing relative. Before I wrote Bonobo Handshake, there had not been a popular book on bonobos in over a decade – I hope soon this will change.
CommitmentNow.com: What have you learned – about yourself, about people, about relationships and politics – from working with Bonobos in the Congo?
Vanessa: When I wake up this morning, someone might try to kill me. I live 10 minutes from a small town called Durham, NC, where according to the last statistics, 22 people were killed, 76 women were raped, and there were 682 cases of aggravated assault.
When a chimpanzee wakes up in the morning, they probably have the same thought. In fact, if you're a male chimpanzee, you're more likely to be killed by another chimpanzee than anything else. If you're a female chimpanzee, expect to be beaten by every adolescent male who is making his way up through the ranks.
People often ask me why humans are so intelligent, as in, what is it other apes lack that makes us so unique.
I'll tell you this: I would swap every gadget I own - my car, my laptop, the potential to fly to the moon - if I could wake up as a bonobo. No bonobo has ever been seen to kill another bonobo. There is very little violence towards females. The infants get an idyllic childhood where they do nothing but hang out with their moms and get anything they want. There is plenty of food. Lots of sex.
We work in Congo, where around 5.4 million people have died since 1996. It’s ironic that the world’s most peaceful ape lives in the most wartorn country. But I bet the Congolese would rather wake up as a bonobo too!
CommitmentNow.com: When they think of the Congo, most people think of war, rebel groups and human suffering. What would you like people to know about the Congo?
Vanessa: The people there have an incredible spirit. Despite what has been done to them, there is a lot of joy and hope in Congo. And when we talk about saving bonobos, ultimately this will be up to the Congolese.
CommitmentNow.com: How did the political situation in the Congo influence your scientific research?
Vanessa: We had to be careful during the elections in 2006, but otherwise it was quite peaceful.
CommitmentNow.com: You grew to love many of the Bonobos you worked with. Did the depth of your feelings for there animals surprise you?
Vanessa: Yes, very much. Bonobos have a way of making you fall in love with them.
CommitmentNow.com: What is the situation like for Bonobos now?
Vanessa: The next decade will be crucial for bonobos. They’ve been lucky – because of the instability, mining and logging companies haven’t really made inroads into bonobo habitat. But with peace newly arrived, the next 10 years will seal the fate of bonobos one way or the other.
CommitmentNow.com: Where can we learn more about bonobos?
To purchase Bonobo Handshake, click here.