In January 30, 1962 at a mission-run girls' boarding school situated in Kishasha village, Tanganyika (currently, Tanzania) three girls began laughing. A joke made by one of the three girls might have resulted to them laughing which is a common phenomenon.
However the laughter didn't end with the three girls. It spiralled out of control infecting other 95 students from a total population of 159 students in the boarding school.
The rate of laughter varied from one student to another - some laughed for a few minutes while others laughed for a couple of hours. One of the girls under the influence guffawed uncontrollably for six days.
This incident was recorded in Central African Journal of Medicine titled, ‘An Epidemic of Laughing in the Bukoba District of Tanganyika’ in 1963.
The school was closed in March 18, 1962 shortly after the outbreak of laughter since the students couldn't concentrate on their studies.
A nearby village, Nshamba wasn't spared of this contagious behaviour. Some of the students who were under the influence spread it in their village, Nshamba. It is estimated 217 of the villagers succumbed to the laughter. The majority of the affected were children and young adults.
In May 21, 1962 the girls’ boarding school was re-opened only to be closed at the end of June of the same year. The epidemic behaviour hadn't ceased.
The laughter outbreak had spread to another village, spreading from children to parents. The epidemic behaviour lasted between 18 months to 2 years. More than 1000 people had fallen prey to the infectious behaviour. What's more, fourteen schools were closed down.
Small doses of laughter is healthy for the wellbeing of an individual - mentally and physically. However, when laughter lasts for a prolonged period, it can be severe. Some of the symptoms associated with prolonged laughter after it ceases include fainting, respiratory problems, pain and rashes.
Other symptoms exhibited by the people who had fallen under its spell after it vanished were random screaming and crying.
Tanganyika laughter epidemic
Studies were carried out to determine the cause of this abnormal condition and explanation for its resultant effects. Blood samples from some of the students were analyzed in top laboratories of Kinshasa and Cairo. No sign of a contagion was found nor any abnormalities.
The questions that were raised by the researchers who investigated the phenomenon is still a question that puzzles scientists to date. Where did it come from and where did it vanish to? The most pressing question is, what was it? Anoyher question worth pondering is whether such a phenomenon has a potential of re-emerging.
What is Mass Hysteria?
Mass hysteria commonly known as Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) is defined as a "condition in which a large group of people exhibit the same state of violent mental agitation." (Princeton) Other terms associated with mass hysteria are collective hysteria, collective obsessional behaviour or group hysteria.
Some scientists are of the opinion the Tanganyika laughter was not a result of the students being poisoned or due to ingestion or inhalation of toxins or elements in the environment.
They believe the phenomenon occurs in people who don't have high occupying power. This signifies people who are under the influence of mass hysteria emanate from low status families - poor families.
Furthermore, they state mass hysteria is mostly common among women.
Their thinking is that the students were stressed by the high expectations of their parents or teachers in excelling in their studies. They might also be stressed out by the uncertainty of their future since the nation was emerging from the strong hands of their colonial master, Britain.
Another probable reason is the students were in a state of confusion from switching from African to western culture.
Nonetheless, the villagers were of different opinion. They believed the incident might have been instigated by witchcraft - someone threw a magic spell in the female boarding school.
A disturbing case of the laughter epidemic is the students would lush out when they were restrained from laughing. They stated they felt something moving in their heads. They didn't know what it was but felt as if somebody was after them.
As it remains, none of the theories that have been put forward to explain the Tanganyika laughter have been universally agreed upon.
While the laughter lasted for more than a year, there were relapses or breaks between their laughter - they didn't laugh on end.