Everyone knows that laughter is contagious. Seeing another person laughing can be enough to inspire a fit of giggles (or chuckles, if you prefer) in even the most taciturn person. It doesn’t even matter if you’re in on the joke or not.
But if laughter is contagious, could it become an epidemic? This seemed to be the case in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in 1962, when three girls at a mission school began to act odd. The resulting epidemic swept through the entire country and spilled over into neighboring nations. It was characterized, at least in popular memory, by uncontrollable laughter. As we will soon see, the truth is more complex and not nearly as amusing.
The epidemic began on January 30, 1962 at a mission run boarding school at Kashasha village in Tanzania, 25 miles south of Bukoba. Three girls began to show symptoms that would come to characterize the outbreak: laughing and crying fits, restlessness, and paranoia. Patients would often become violent when restrained. The symptoms lasted for hours or even days, with the longest stretch lasting 16 days. After the initial onset of symptoms, most of the girls showed signs of improvement before lapsing back into an altered state.
By March 18, 95 of the school’s 159 students – which were all girls ages 12-18 – were effected, forcing the school to close. The girls were sent home, and they brought the epidemic with them.
The outbreak reached Nshamba village when two boarding school students returned home. The Nshamba outbreak began March 28 and ran until April 30. Of 10,000 village residents, 217 villagers fell ill. All of the victims were school children or young adults. Both sexes were affected.
In May, the Kashasha boarding school attempted to reopen, but the laughing and crying fits struck again. However, this outbreak wasn’t as severe as the initial one, with only 57 out of 159 students affected. Still, the school was once again forced to close its doors.
On June 10, the epidemic hit Ramashenye Girl’s Middle School, which was located on the outskirts of Bukoba. Some students form Kashasha lived in the area. This outbreak lasted eight days and sickened 98 of 154 students, forcing the school’s closure.
While the middle school suffered its outbreak, another student spread the illness to her home village. This outbreak was confined to three of her family members.
From that point, the reports become sketchy. The facts of the incident were not well recorded. The incident lasted from about six months to a year, and spread through large swaths of Tanganyika and into the neighboring countries of Kenya and Uganda. Thousands fell ill before the outbreak ended as mysteriously as it began.
Exhaustive 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 revealed no infections or physical ailments. Ruling out any biological causes led experts to turn to the only viable explanation for the odd events: our old pal, mass hysteria.
Regional stresses and intense pressure
The outbreak occurred against a backdrop of immense change. In 1962, Tanganyika gained its independence from Great Britain. The country, like many others in Africa. had been a colony since the end of the 19th century, when it was claimed by Germany. Then it came under the aegis of the British Commonwealth after World War I.
These stresses no doubt played a part in the larger outbreak. Of more immediate importance to the girls among whom the initial outbreak happened was a stressful environment that reflected the larger changes
in microcosm. These were adolescent girls who left their families and villages, often the only world they’d ever known, to go live with strangers in an unfamiliar setting. They were exposed to strict Western style educational practices and to Christian morality for the first time. These would be much different than the tribal values that the girls grew up with. Like Tanganyika itself, the girls were walking an unfamiliar path in unknown territory, in a state of flux.
In addition, racial segregation in schools was done away with on January 1, 1962. It might seem odd today that this could be stressful, but a simple look at how desegregation of schools in the US caused so much uproar shows how a big change like that can effect people.
Taken together, these factors all built a pressure cooker tailor made to produce mass hysteria.
An outbreak of motor-variant hysteria
The Tanganyika laughing epidemic was an outbreak of motor-variant hysteria. Rare in the modern world, it mostly confines itself to the third world, where belief in the supernatural often still holds sway and people are more likely to be subjected to oppressive circumstances, both political and cultural.
While the Tanganyika outbreak has become entrenched in both popular culture and scientific literature as an epidemic of hilarity, the laughter was only one symptom. The others were crying, restlessness, and violent behavior. But the focus on the laughing is understandable, since laughter is usually associated with mirth and good times rather than illness. However, laughter can be a symptom in a variety of disorders. People suffering from dementia and other mental illnesses might laugh at inappropriate times, for no apparent reason. Another disease with laughter as a symptom is kuru, a neurodegenerative disease similar to mad cow disease. The end stage of the disease is characterized by fits of laughter.
So, to return to the Tanganyika case, the victims weren’t laughing because they found something funny. The laughter was one of several ways that the profound stress and anxiety they could not express in healthier ways was converted into physical symptoms. This laughter was not continuous, as is implied by the term “laughter epidemic.” Humans can only laugh for about 20 seconds straight. The act of laughing is, believe it or not, every taxing. It puts a lot of stress on the respiratory system and abdominal muscles.
Anyone who has laughed until their sides ached and they couldn’t breathe has experienced just how strenuous laughter can be. Now, imagine experiecing fits of laughter like that day in and day out for months at a time. It is easy to see then how the victims of the Tanganyika laughing epidemic suffered.
Hempelmann, Christan F. “The Laughter of the 1962 Tanganyika ‘Laughter Epidemic.’” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research. 2007. Vol. 1, pg 49-71 23p
Rankin AM, Philip PJ. “An Epidemic of Laughing in the Bukoba District of Tanganyika. Central African Journal of Medicine. May 9, 1963; pgs 167-170