Estonian soldiers build a sauna in Africa to support their peacekeeping mission

The Estonian military has a tradition of building saunas on deployment – and that even applies in the 40°C heat out in Mali, West Africa.

If you think it’s hot in Estonia on a nice summer day, then spare a thought for the Estonian soldiers serving in the 40°C (104°F) heat out in Mali, West Africa.

Of course, that won’t stop them from celebrating with a good Estonian sauna.

Stove brought from Estonia

Members of the Estonian Defence Forces at the Gao Military Base, which they share with French and other allied forces, have just opened their own “Gao spa” with a sauna that can fit up to eight people at a time.

“Gao spa” in Mali, built by Estonian servicemen.

As there is no sauna aisle in the local shops, the soldiers had to bring the equipment and materials with them from Estonia, including an electric stove that they had to use due to the fire regulations on the base. Even the wooden interiors are brought from Estonia in order to provide the right atmosphere.

The Estonian military has a tradition of setting up saunas while on deployment, including in Afghanistan and Lebanon, and they always ensure that no sauna is left behind afterwards.

“Gao spa” in Mali, built by Estonian servicemen.

It took them approximately one week to build their new sauna in Mali so that it was ready just in time for their midsummer night celebration.

A sauna is important for morale

Major Jaanus Tuulik, who is in charge of the Estonian forces there, explained it was important to continue Estonian traditions while deployed abroad and the sauna was important for morale, especially between busy shifts.

Although the sauna culture is most commonly associated with the wintery weather of northern Europe, different forms of sweat bathing were once widespread elsewhere in the world, including in hot countries like sweat lodges in central America and hammams in the Middle East. In West Africa, for example, “vapour baths” were commonly used for healing until relatively recently.

“Gao spa” in Mali, built by Estonian servicemen.

In addition to still providing physical health benefits in hot weather, there is 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 together afterwards.

The Estonian military even 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.

Fighting Islamist extremism

The Estonian soldiers at Gao are providing logistics, repair and medical support to Operation Barkhane, a French-led fight against Islamist extremism in the area, which prevents people from having to leave their homes as refugees and being trafficked to Europe. Estonian soldiers in Mali are also serving under the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, and the European Union’s regional stability mission, EUTM. This helps the Mali government organise free elections, build up their ability to govern effectively and protect human rights across the country.

Estonian servicemen in front of “Gao spa” in Mali.

The Estonian ministry of defence says that supporting the international community with these peacekeeping efforts abroad is an essential part of protecting Estonia at home.

This is a lightly edited version of the article originally published by Adam Rang in Medium. You can follow Adam’s take on Estonian sauna culture also on InstagramFacebook or TwitterImages by Adam Rang.