What apes can teach us

I’m here in Africa and I’ve come back to the same spot near Kampala, Uganda where I made my home base for my last trip here.

It’s some of the most incredible landscape I’ve ever seen. It’s unique because it’s where the dense, Western forest meets the dry savannah. West are the mountain forests and east are the volcanic mountains… and just a bit south and east is the Serengeti.


The bonobo is one of the great apes and they’re the smallest ape, but also the most closely related to you and I…

And a bit farther east is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I hope to be able to see the Bonobo chips. They’re the last family of Great Apes I haven’t had a chance to see; I’ve seen all the others – chimps, gorillas and orangutans. But bonobos are important because they’re the most closely related to humans.

They only live in one area near the Congo River, and it might be tough to get there, but I’m excited because bonobos are different from any other primate except humans. They’re intensely social.

Bonobos develop strong bonds between each other, and they’re much nicer and social almost to a fault.

I had a lot of time to read on the plane rides here, and as I was scrolling through the newest research from the journal PLOS ONE, I saw the word “bonobos” and started reading. A new study found that Bonobo chimps will share with a stranger before a chimp they already know.1

In the study, they opened doors for strangers, and shared their food. Bonobos care about each other and are always trying to extend their social network.

That’s very different from the chimpanzees I visited last time I was in Africa. Those were bigger, stronger, and sometimes scary. Bonobos are supposed to be slimmer and appear more like humans, partly because they walk on two feet often.

And the fact that their mannerisms and actions are so much like us makes me think about how we humans have evolved and grown, and how ancient societies also valued sharing.

The oldest societies still value sharing above almost anything else.

In the West we feel obligated when someone does something for us. It’s the “I’ll get the next one” mentality. But when I traveled to India – where I needed a lot of help – it’s part of their culture to share and help you. They don’t even expect a “thank you,” and thought I was funny for saying it when I did receive help.

I found it was similar in Bali. The Balinese Hindu follow three rules to live by. They’re called the “Tri Hita Karana.” And one is to do your best to make sure your actions affect others in a positive way. Your work and day-to-day activities have to support and strengthen your relationship with those around you.

The ancient Polynesians live by their understanding of aloha. They strive for the relaxation, happiness and long life that come from sharing. Alo means share, and ha means breath. So aloha means to share the breath of life.

In fact, one of the five principles of the spirit of aloha is akahai. That’s the gentle kindness that includes consideration toward everyone.

When I put it all together, I realize that virtually every person I’ve ever had a problem didn’t have a spirit of cooperation and sharing. And you know, you run into that a lot.

But I like the ancient Polynesians’ solution. They developed aloha so they could get along together, solve problems, and find pleasure in living.

And it’s simple to emulate.

The akahai principle of aloha is about giving and helping, sharing the breath of life, and being considerate and altruistic.

There are four ways to accomplish this:

1. Help strangers – Commit to helping one person you don’t know each day.

2. Make personal contact – Help people one on one. For example, don’t mail in your donation. Volunteer instead.

3. Build your core, give your energy – Take care of yourself and your body so that you have energy to help others.

4. Be a partner – Help for help’s sake. Helping is giving. Don’t expect thanks. Give and share from the heart.

You don’t have to fix, or be the rescuer. Caring enough to be there is what makes people feel better. That’s akahai.

1. Tan J, Hare B. “Bonobos Share with Strangers.” PLOS ONE, 2013; 8 (1): e51922.