I am still not able to believe what I am about to write.
The story of normal day in the life of the Tanzanian people. Or rather, they thought it would be just another normal day, when a strange epidemic spread widely and suddenly, from inside the walls of a classroom to bringing down a nation.
On January 30, 1962 in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), near the border of Uganda, when the professor had just completed a lesson and was about to move on to the next one, was when she heard a girl from the third bench laughing. At first, the professor was mad at her and knew it was to distract her class. But when she observed, she realized that no other students or her friends were playing around or having a conversation. The class also looked at her with astonishment. The girl’s face showed no happiness even though she was laughing, but an expression of helplessness.
Began with three girls in a classroom, the anxiety induced laughter that started slowly saw a chain effect on the population, that lasted up to 16 days or several months. The crying and howling of the people from the village at night had caused a horror among the communities in Tanzania. Schools were shut down on March 18, 1962 when the mass illness started to spread like wildfire. 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, mostly 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.
The noise of these laughter were not joyful, it signaled extreme cases of distress, anger and sadness. Thousands of people got affected in a matter of no time. Surprisingly, these had symptoms. That’s right, symptoms! Physical and mental pain, fainting, flatulence, respiratory problems, rashes, attacks of crying, and random screaming, accompanied by restlessness—aimless running and occasional violence—but there was no evidence of organic causes.
According to humor researchers following the incident, it was found that such a physiological behavior happens on a weekly basis in many parts of the world, especially among populations that experience high levels of chronic stress. An example of a similar incident is an instance of unexplained nausea and dizziness among students at a school in Lancashire, England in the past November. There is also abundant evidence of such events in places of instability like Kosovo, Afghanistan, and South Africa.
In an article by Tao Tao Holmes, Christian Hempelmann of Texas A&M University, who has done research on the incident, describes the laughter epidemic as a case of mass psychogenic illness, The stress factors here among the schoolgirls may have included the unfamiliar expectations imposed in the British-run schools and the uncertainties created by Tanganyika’s independence, achieved barely a month before the incident. “Psychogenic illness has all kinds of so-called nerve symptoms”, he explains, “and laughter is just one of them.”
Though the Tanganyika case is closed, similar cases of mass psychogenic illness occur among groups of people unable to extract themselves from a stressful situation.