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When hysterical laughter forced schools and villages in Tanganyika to shut down in 1962

May 06, 2019 at 07:00 am | History

Nduta Waweru

Nduta Waweru | Contributor

May 06, 2019 at 07:00 am | History

Children laughing

Before Tanganyika joined forces with Zanzibar to become Tanzania, an incident that took place in one of the towns called Bukoba had people wondering what was happening.

Three students at a German school in a town called Kashasha, started laughing hysterically in one of the morning classes. Historians indicate the date was January 30.

The teacher, who panicked at the situation, rang the bell and assembled all the girls in the school.  She was hoping to calm down the students, but instead, the situation had the opposite effect.  Other girls joined the first two in laughter uncontrollably…and soon after, 95 students in the school were affected.

The school eventually closed down in March, after teachers, who were not affected by the laughing epidemic were unable to work under the circumstances.

Bukoba. Photo: Wiki CC

It turned out to be the wrong move. The laughing problem spread to the villages, affecting at least 1000 people including students from 14 other schools.

Medical personnel, puzzled by the event, quarantined the other villages not affected. As they conducted their research and study, they became more puzzled.

According to a paper, An epidemic of laughing in the Bukoba district of Tanganyika by P.J Rankin, A.M and Phillip: 

No significant abnormal physical signs were found and all laboratory tests were normal. There have been no fatalities. No toxic factor in food supplies was found. It is suggested that this is mass hysteria in a susceptible population.

The research looked at food, including maize served in schools as well as bananas and beans in the farms, but they could not find anything. The researchers also carried out tests on water from all sources in the village but it all turned out negative.

One of the legends was that the laughing epidemic was caused by ‘poison’ in the atmosphere resulting from atomic bomb explosions.

When asked how they were feeling, the patients said that they were scared and felt like ‘someone was chasing them’. They did not provide any additional information.

According to the Paper, another outbreak happened in Mbarara, a town in Uganda just a few miles from Kashaha. About 60 students were affected, but the epidemic did not last for long.

After ruling out food contamination and neurological problems, the researchers settled on Mass Hysteria as the probable cause of the laughing epidemic. They linked it to similar hysteria in Europe in the Middle Ages such as the Dancing Mania of Germany and Italy.

They, however, indicated that further study of the epidemic should be conducted and should feature a cultural element to it.

The epidemic ended one and a half years after it started.

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