Mikkel Aaland

"It's All An Adventure"

Tribal Africa

Sweat comes from the outside and falls on men like dew on the grass.—Bantu saying

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Just as rustic as the sod mounds of Ireland were the thatched sweat huts in Africa south of the Sahara where historically, heat and sweating were one of the basic remedies for all kinds of ailments.


In the late 18th century, Mungo Park wrote, “African diseases are but few in number. On the first attack of fever, when the patient complains of a cold, he is frequently placed on a sort of vapour bath; this is done by spreading branches of the nauclea orientalis upon hot wood embers, and laying the patient upon them, wrapped up in a large cotton cloth. Water is then sprinkled upon the branches, which descending to the hot embers, soon covers the patient with a cloud of vapour, in which he is allowed to remain until the embers are almost extinguished. This practice commonly produces a profuse perspiration and wonderfully relieves the sufferer.”


In 1941, Dr. George Harley reported, “Hot baths and vapor baths are in great vogue.” Having spent ten years in Liberia, he described a sweat bath of the Mandigo tribe in West Central, Africa as a “Turkish style vapor bath arranged by making a small circular hut for the patient. Beside him is a fire of embers and a pot of herbs. A mat covers the top, shutting in the patient as tightly as possible. The smoke makes him cough terribly, the heat makes him sweat, the steam from the green leaves aggravates both. At length, he is let out, dripping with perspiration. In some cases in which there is a ritual significance, a pot of cold water is dashed over him.”


In east Africa, a tribal doctor will instruct his assistants to dig a hole, about the size of a grave. A fire is built in the hole and, after it has almost burned down, is smothered with large green leaves. The patient is then laid on poles over the hole until he is thoroughly smoked. Another Ugandan method is to shut the patient in a hut with a large fire until those outside decide to let him out.


Writing of the Tanzanian Bantu in 1927, Henri Junod said, “A kind of Turkish vapour bath is administered in certain complaints and also after the funeral rites, in order to remove the contamination of death. A circular enclosure is made, with a screen of matting, in the middle of which the patient is placed, and, close by him, on live embers, a pot containing leaves supposed to possess medicinal properties. A second mat is then spread over the top of the enclosure, thus shutting the patient in a sort of small hut.” Junod refers to this bathing as the phungule, “administered in most cases where ritual defilement is feared, or is believed to have caused the disease.”


This vapor bath is also used as a last resort for couples not successful in having children. The physician cooks a combination of roots in a pot inside the mat enclosure. He adds the uterus of a goat to the fire under the pot. Through vaporous smoke, the medicine enters the patients and they either ripen or cook. The Bantu word for sweat and sweat bathing is ku-myuka, which also means “melt.”


Aside from the sweat or vapor bath, I found brief mention of other ways of inducing sweat in Africa – hot sand, mud baths and poultices. These methods are applied locally to produce heat and to encourage healing.


I’m sure the African nations are rich in custom and ritual, especially in association with sweat bathing, and I welcome updated research on this subject.



Return to the Sweat home page, here.




The Illustrated History and Description of the Finnish Sauna, Russian Bania, Islamic Hammam, Japanese Mushi-Buro, Mexican Temescal, and American Indian & Eskimo Sweatlodge


by Mikkel Aaland

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