Here’s why Estonian soldiers keep building saunas in Africa

They’ve just opened their second sauna while on deployment in Mali.

Adam Rang
Adam Rang
Jan 4 · 5 min read

Estonia’s Ministry of Defence revealed yesterday that Estonian soldiers have completed a new sauna at their base in Timbuktu, Mali.

The soldiers took an old UN shipping container and used locally recycled wood to convert it into a sauna with a leiliruum (hot room) that fits nine people, as well as a changing room, shower and covered BBQ area. It was built in one month using their spare time over weekends.

The sauna was built in time for Christmas and has already been used — not just by the Estonian soldiers, but also soldiers from allied countries that they share the base with.

This isn’t the first Estonian sauna in Mali though.

Earlier this year, Estonian soldiers also built a sauna at their Gao Military Base, which was opened just in time for their jaanipäev (Midsummer’s night) celebration.

That sauna, which they named ‘Gao spa’, has a leiliruum that can fit up to eight people.

The Estonian military has also built saunas elsewhere on previous deployments, including in Afghanistan and Lebanon.

But.. why?

This news has left a few people confused — at least in the comments section on ERR News when they reported the story. People wanted to know: why build a sauna in a country that’s already hot?

It’s worth noting that sauna-like thermal bathing is actually part of many different cultures around the world, including in hot climates. The experience of bathing in a sauna isn’t comparable to simply being in hot weather because a good sauna will also have good ventilation, periodic bursts of humidity (known as leil in Estonian), and will still be considerably hotter — especially in the evening.

In fact, West Africa where these saunas have been built, already has its own ‘vapour bath’ tradition where people are taken to a sauna-like structure for healing. This has been documented here by Norwegian-American sauna researcher Mikkel Aaland and can be seen in the photo below.

For Estonian soldiers though, the sauna has a number of useful purposes that support their deployment.

For a start, it’s part of their regular hygiene and provides familiarity and a sense of home, which is crucial for morale. Many people around the world associate saunas with luxury, but saunas to Estonian soldiers are as normal and necessary as any other amenity needed to support life on base.

The Estonian military actually introduced a rule in 1998 making it mandatory for soldiers to go to the sauna at least once per week. The rule is no longer mandatory, but still commonly respected.

Crucially, the sauna is also a communal experience for Estonian soldiers.

In addition to still providing physical health benefits in hot weather, there is also plenty of research to suggest that the most important benefit of the sauna is social bonding, which is essential among soldiers. One study even showed that men who sweat together are more likely to co-operate better together afterwards. (Apparently, women are good at co-operating already).

And the ability to invite soldiers from other allied nations on the same base also provides a useful opportunity for integration and a bit of international diplomacy.

Estonian soldiers in Mali already have an incredibly tough job. They’re there as part of a UN peacekeeping mission to protect human rights and support free elections and the development of good governance, as well as part of a French-led operation to combat terrorism.

They deserve a good sauna.

Thanks for reading

The Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam, explorers and exporters of Estonian saunas. You can also follow our adventures on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — or join our Facebook group for fans of Estonian saunas. Email us at tere@estoniansaunas.com.

Our global online store will be launching soon, but we export to the UK at EstonianSaunas.co.uk and also have two saunas in Estonia that are open to visitors and were created with the best of Estonian design and technology — our Tallinn smoke sauna and our Tallinn Airbnb apartment with an e-sauna. We’re also shareholders in HUUM, Estonia’s top designer of sauna stoves and heaters, and we’re sponsors of the European Sauna Marathon, which we’ll be covering extensively on our blog.

Estonian Saunas

We explore Estonian sauna design, technology, & traditions.

Adam Rang

Written by

Adam Rang

Explorer & exporter of Estonian saunas. Previously Chief Evangelist at Estonia’s e-Residency programme.

Estonian Saunas

We explore Estonian sauna design, technology, & traditions.

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