Be like a bonobo

(Based on speech given at the the Imbokodo Transformation Agenda Award ceremony on 24 August 2022)

Faced with the task of delivering an uplifting and motivational maritime message, I searched the internet for some inspiration, but found nothing that really fitted the brief. So donning my journalist hat, I came up with a few titles that I thought might work: 

  • Achieving your maritime mission
  • 5 Easy ways to get ahead in your maritime career
  • Maritime gains over the last two decades
  • A collaborative approach for Maritime South Africa
  • Lift as you rise on the tide – or; 
  • Be like a Bonobo

As you can see from the title of the blog – I settled on the last topic: Be like a bonobo. 

When I was in Durban in 2019 for SAIMI’s (South African International Maritime Institute) Forward Thinking Conference, I went back to my hotel room and was fascinated by the story of the bonobos on the Discovery Channel. 

For those of you who may not know what a bonobo is – it is a primate rather closely related to the chimpanzee. In fact, the two species are almost entirely identical in terms of their genetic make-up. They are, however, vastly different in terms of their lifestyles. 

It turns out that the bonobo is a largely matriarchal society which is generally a peaceloving, chilled one where there is little aggression and where there is a genuine sense of community as well as a desire to act as a group and not as an individual. 

Interestingly, this is quite different from the chimpanzee who lives just across the river. On their side of the dividing water – they exhibit an aggressive lifestyle. The patriarchal society allows male chimps to dominate their female counterparts – often resulting in severe aggression that includes infanticide. 

The documentary showed footage of both sides of the river; cutting between the two societies to amplify the differences. The chimps were marauding, violent creatures where females were often at the mercy of the bigger, stronger males. While on the bonobos’ side of the river things appeared a little more like a hippy commune where the members languished in the sun and shared food; looked after each other’s infants and generally seemed to be living in utopia. 

The obvious question then is why and how? Why are these societies so different and how can we more emulate the bonobos?

Well it turns out that there is a very real reason for these differences. Apparently a massive drought impacted the side of the river on which the chimpanzees live in a way that resulted in food shortages as well as the need to protect scarce resources from other species such as the bigger gorilla. 

The chimpanzees needed to become more aggressive to survive. This aggression spilled over into their own community and generation after generation they passed on the scarcity trauma to their descendants – even as the drought eased and resources returned. As a result the chimpanzees became an aggressive, xenophobic society where not even its own members were safe. 

By comparison, on the other side of the river, the bonobos were not faced with these same challenges and were secure in the knowledge that enough resources were available to all. And in turn this culture of sharing was therefore inculcated amongst the community – and this became the ancestral gift passed from generation to generation. 

Now you may be wondering what on earth this has to do with the maritime industry? And that’s a good question. On the surface it has absolutely nothing to do with the maritime industry actually. 

But one of the issues that keeps popping up at maritime conferences and workshops is the lack of collaboration as companies, institutions and individuals try to protect their turf or domain in the industry. Now, I would suggest that makes us more like the chimpanzees than the bonobos. 

I do understand that the pie seems to be small, but continuously cutting it up into more and more pieces is simply going to make us more hungry to become focused on our own survival at the expense of the growth of the industry. 

The mere existence of a 3,000km coastline; the vast EEZ that the South Africa has access to as well as its position at the tip of Africa on a busy trade route between East and West, means that we should be more secure in the notion that we have the resources and opportunities to help us err towards the bonobo mindset.

Many have alluded to a number of gaps in the industry. Low hanging fruit and lost opportunities should highlight that we need to expand our vision of the maritime sector to embrace its ability to accommodate new entrants, women, youth and even the expansion of existing companies. 

We need the government to listen to industry in terms of what is required to unlock many of these opportunities. The ports need to act swiftly to a changing landscape and commit to timeous delivery of capital expenditure, licensing and partnerships while removing corruption as well as the bureaucracy that stifles growth. 

We also need industry to work collaboratively across sub sectors in a way that acknowledges synergies and breaks down silos. 

In the context of the Imbokodo Awards, the Women’s Conference and women’s month – I would suggest that we can take this desire to be like a bonobo even further. 

I would argue that we cannot attain bonobo status by narrowing our view to the very binary picture we currently have of gender roles. It is not so much about allowing women to be women in the maritime industry as it is about society allowing everyone to be themselves wherever they may land on the stereotypical feminine/masculine spectrum. 

And it certainly needs to challenge the idea that men should not adopt traditionally feminine roles just as much as it needs to address the idea that women can adopt leadership roles. It needs to be inculcated into our families where parents stop presenting different household chores to sons and daughters or where fathers automatically assume the place at the head of the table at dinner time. We can only truly be authentic when we shrug off stereotypes and allow ourselves to live in the way that feels natural to us. Not all of us are leaders; not all of us are caregivers – there is a huge spectrum of opportunity that lies between these two points. 

A glance at our bonobo society shows us that the males are not expected to be the leaders, but neither are the females. The power is not assumed by either gender – but rather shared across the troop in a way that underpins the notion that power is not a scarce commodity that naturally will result in the desire to dominate.

There are currently a number of overlapping initiatives within the industry to address the silo mentality; to improve the visibility of women and youth by unlocking opportunities; to create awareness and to expand the scope of our maritime sector within the global interest to lower carbon emissions as well as to create a greener maritime space.

We need to actively identify these overlaps and commit to addressing why we are not working together to reach these goals. 

And this is why we need to be more like the bonobo. There are no silos within the bonobo society. They are actively working as one community to ensure a sustainable future for the group as a whole. They are not intent in driving domination by any one over another and have, by default, created a society where all can thrive. 

So I leave you with this mantra: be like a bonobo – see your domain as one where you do not need to grab every opportunity; where there is space for all who surround you to acknowledge their strengths wherever they lie on the spectrum. And let us unlock the hereto locked blue economy opportunities by cutting bureaucracy, territoriality and a sense of scarcity. 


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