Adela,  Africa,  Asia

The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic

Still from Laughology (2009)

Sometimes laughter isn’t the best medicine. We’ve all been there- laughing until our sides hurt. Thinking if we laughed anymore we might never stop. Now imagine a laughing epidemic.

The laughter epidemic is rumored to have begun on January 30, 1962, at a mission-run boarding school for girls in Kashasha, on the western coast of Lake Victoria in the modern nation of Tanzania near the border of Uganda. The laughter started with three girls and spread throughout the school, affecting 95 of the 159 pupils, aged 12–18. Symptoms lasted from a few hours to 16 days in those affected. The teaching staff were not affected, but reported that students were unable to concentrate on their lessons. The school was forced to close down on March 18, 1962.

After the school was closed and the students were sent home, the epidemic spread to Nshamba, a village that was home to several of the girls. In April and May, 217 people had laughing attacks in the village, most of them being school children and young adults. The Kashasha school was reopened on May 21, only to be closed again at the end of June. In June, the laughing epidemic spread to Ramashenye girls’ middle school, near Bukoba, affecting 48 girls.

Other schools, Kashasha itself, and another village, comprising thousands of people, were all affected to some degree. Six to eighteen months after it started, the phenomenon died off. The following symptoms were reported on an equally massive scale as the reports of the laughter itself: pain, fainting, flatulence, respiratory problems, rashes, attacks of crying, and random screaming. In total 14 schools were shut down and 1000 people were affected.

The facts of the incident were not well recorded. The incident lasted from about six months to a year, and thousands fell ill before the outbreak ended as mysteriously as it began. Testing of both food and the school itself showed no presence of pathogens or toxic agents that could explain the odd behavior. Medical tests on the girls themselves

Charles F. Hempelmann of Purdue University theorized that the episode was stress-induced. In 1962 Tanganyika had just won its independence and students had reported feeling stressed because of higher expectations by teachers and parents.