Serengeti Campfire, And Other Stories

Camping In The Serengeti

As part of a 49 day overland camping trip in Africa, we spent a few nights camping in the Serengeti. Not those fancy glamping tents, but simple green, two-person tents that we tore down and set up almost daily, by ourselves.

The facilities in the Serengeti camping area are basic, but it’s a great way to see Serengeti National Park inexpensively. It’s also part of the adventure as there are no fences and animals can roam freely, like the two lioness that visited our camp one evening.

It was also a learning experience as our guides, born and raised in Kenya and Tanzania, shared stories about their life and culture over a campfire in the Serengeti.

They helped us understand concepts that are controversial in the western world, like multiple wives, dowries, circumcision, and traditional family life.

The Serengeti Campgrounds Facilities

There were bathrooms and a cooking area with tables in a pavilion, all with no electricity. And even though I had to shower in cold water with a flashlight, it was still one of my favorite camps of the trip, simply because it was the Serengeti.

Making it even more interesting, there are no fences, so the animals can, and do, wander through the camp.

Campground Wildlife

We saw elephant, gazelles, giraffe, and water buffalo during the day. And although you should always look first before leaving your tent, we were told to scan with a flashlight after dark. They said that if eyes reflect back, consider staying inside. And they’re serious.

They even detailed out which animals eyes reflected which color. Then told us to take into consideration how many there were to determine how dangerous the situation was. We were also told to walk in groups.

Sure enough, on our first night, two lioness wandered into our camp late one evening. When they wandered in, our guides were prepping our jeeps for safaris the next day. They were able to move into the kitchen area for safety, which has doors for just such a purpose.

Almost everyone in our camp heard one of the lioness growling, but somehow, I managed to sleep through the whole thing. Maybe that’s good…

Serengeti Campfire Stories

There was another Intrepid overland tour group camping at the same time as us, so we had two amazing tour guides to share stories of their lives and culture around the campfire. Several of us had questions on how things worked and they answered as best they could.

Serengeti Campfire Stories: Multiple Wives

Questions about multiple wives was the first topic. Although less common today, for reasons explained below, it’s still practiced. Our overland tour driver said he had 6 wives. We weren’t sure if he was serious or not as he was only in his 30s and away from home, driving, 8 months of the year.

We did, however, learn that our tour guide’s grandfather had 7 wives, while the other guide’s grandfather had 13. Someone asked how a man could have several wives as usually populations are split about 50/50 female/male. The surprising answer was that the ratio of women to men used to be about 65/35. No one was certain if fewer male babies were born, but they did say that male babies sometimes died young, tending to not be as strong.

Also, with their circumcision process, which is not done in a hospital, young men sometimes die.

They said that this system worked better in previous generations, as in today’s society it’s more and more difficult to have multiple wives. Today, the marriage contract states whether the agreement is a one-on-one marriage or if there can be multiple wives.

Serengeti Campfire Stories: Extended Families

When there are several wives, the first wife becomes the head wife. She needs to be strong as she’s responsible for all the female issues of the family. She’s also usually the person that selects the other wives for her husband. Often selecting family and friends to create a harmonious household, or, at least people that she knew she could control. The guy whose grandfather had 13 wives said that wife 2 and wife 4 were twin sisters.

Each wife needed her own house, but the children are raised by all the adults, as part of an extended family. All the father’s brothers became the children’s fathers, while all wives became their mothers. The mother’s sisters are considered aunts.

They spoke of their childhoods in these extended families as happy times where everyone lived communally, even though they were in separate houses. There may be a dinner at a different household each night, with the grandkids enjoying the camaraderie of many sisters and brothers.

Having multiple wives benefited the family in several ways. First, there were more offspring to help support the family. Especially helpful if farming was the way of life. Also, having more wives allowed the women to help each other with raising the children.

Serengeti Campfire Stories: Dowries

A man is required to provide a dowry to the family of the woman he wants to marry. Although to us this seemed like ‘buying’ a wife, they see it as a token of appreciation to the parents for raising such a fine woman.

The dowry is usually in the form of cows, with the number agreed upon in advance. It varies by tribe, family, and person. Today, sometimes the cash equivalent is used, although this sometimes makes it seem as if the wife is being paid for, so cows are actually preferred.

I later learned that our tour guide was saving up to buy enough cattle for a lady he wanted to marry. He wouldn’t tell us how many, as that’s generally a private arrangement between families.

Serengeti Campfire Stories: Divorce

Men and women can get divorced, but they try very hard to make it work. If there is a divorce, the children belong to the husband. Especially the male children. As many woman are not willing to give up their children, they work very hard to make the marriage work.

Serengeti Campfire Stories: Circumcision

We were told that the boys are selected for circumcision, not by actual age, but by maturity level. Our guides described the process as very basic, using just a knife with no anesthetic.

They’re given a stick to bite on and are not allowed to cry or show pain. Several men are done at once, going off together until they’re healed. When they return, they’re expected to build their own house and move out.

The goal is for them to find a wife. They went on to say that if a man does not find a wife by a certain time, his mother will usually hire a female to help ‘take care’ of him in his home. They said this usually resulted in a child being born about a year later.

Serengeti Campfire Stories: FGM

Someone asked about the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). They said that although it was practiced at one point in time, it was no longer legal. I have read, however, that it’s still practiced in some areas. They didn’t seem too comfortable discussing this topic…which is understandable.

Serengeti Campfire Stories: Today’s Westernized Family Units

We also learned that as more and more Africans start following western lifestyles, it becomes more and more challenging to continue a multi-wife lifestyle. I also suspect that there is no longer an abundance of women as better health care and sanitation brings the ratio closer to 50/50.

Also, as men and women move to cities for work, it becomes more challenging for women to move in with the husbands family. And, of course, the costs of having so many wives and children is extremely expensive.

Religion also plays a role as the major religions in these countries are christian, which preach one wife.

Other Stories From Tanzania: Meeting Area Massai

Young Maasai

When we first arrived at Serengeti National Park, we had some down time while our guides arranged our entrance. There were about 10 young Maasai boys hanging around, probably looking to make money off tourists, and we were curious to meet them.

They all had their foreheads painted with white designs and were wearing dark robes, a sign they’ve recently been circumcised. This ceremony requires them to go off in groups, living on their own until they heal, then return back home.

They wanted $1 for a photo, but knowing this sets a bad precedent, none of us took a picture. I found this one on Wikimedia Commons to provide an idea of their styling.

They were just as curious about us as we were about them. They tried on my prescription sunglasses and wanted to see my rings. Several also offered to sell us the jewelry and trinkets they had.

Maasai Youth | Ritenour

Maasai Outside Of the Serengeti

After visiting the Serengeti, we stopped to visit a village called Mto Wa Mbu. While others in our group were souvenir shopping near the village, I ended up standing next to a Maasai. He couldn’t speak English, but the guy next to him helped translate.

I was holding my iPad and he wanted to know if it was a calculator. And although I tried showing him how I could not only access a calculator, but it also had a camera, the internet, books, email, music, etc.

I’m not sure if he understood or if I completely blew his mind as he didn’t say much. After he left, the guy speaking English told me the Maasai I talked to was rich. Rich meant he had about 20 cattle at about $200 each, or $4,000.

I didn’t take a picture of him as the timing didn’t seem right, but I did capture these two down the street. Note that their shoes are old tires strapped to their feet. Also note the weapons, they always carry them.

Maasai in Tanzania and campfire stories in the Serengeti

So, the Serengeti is much more than the great migration, or the Big Five. I loved hearing the stories here, getting to know our guides, and learning about their culture. The people here are wonderful and every bit as interesting as the wildlife.

Want To a See More Of Tanzania?

Visiting the Serengeti is definitely a bucket-list item, especially for the wildlife enthusiast. It’s best known for the Great Migration, where about 1.5 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra, and 300,000 gazelles migrate annually over 500 miles (800 km). But even if you miss the actual migration, the park is still absolutely stunning and well worth a visit.

Plus, as the Serengeti is so close to the Ngorongoro Crater, it’s a perfect to add on. And if you have time, see the full Northern Circuit, which includes the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Mount Kilimanjaro, Lake Manyara, and Tarangire. There’s also some easier hiking in the Usambara Mountains, if you’re not ready to tackle Kilimanjaro.

Also, if you’re in Tanzania, I recommend visiting Zanzibar, which is off the coast near Dar es Salaam. It’s beautiful beaches provide the perfect compliment to a safari and the history and cultural fusion of Unesco heritage site Stone Town is fascinating.

For an overview of all the highlights of Tanzania, as well as information on how to get around, safety, scams, logistics, and more, see my Tanzania Travel Guide.

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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