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The Unsolved Mystery of Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic

Updated on November 6, 2014

On January 30, 1962 in Kishasha village near Lake Victoria, Tanzania at a mission-run girls’ boarding school, three girls began laughing. It might have been a joke shared from one of them to the rest two that prompted the girls to laugh.

As everyone knows, a smile is contagious so is the case with laughter. As contagious as it is, it went out of control causing an outbreak of laughter that spread like wildfire to infect 95 of the students out of a total population of 159 students. The students were aged 12-18 years.

The girls would laugh for a small amount of minutes to a few hours. However, there is a case of a girl who laughed repeatedly (under the influence of laughter) of which it lasted for six continuous days. This incident of the outbreak of laughter was recorded in Central African Journal of Medicine titled, ‘An Epidemic of Laughing in the Bukoba District of Tanganyika’ in 1963.

The teachers seemed not to be affected. Were they immune from this infection? Nevertheless, the school was closed on March 18, 1962 due to the fact the uncontrollable laughter interfered with studies. The students were unable to concentrate during the lessons.

In spite of the students sent home still under the influence of laughter, Nshamba a village whereby some of the girls it was their home spread this behavior, thereby infecting the village. Between April and May, an estimated 217 people from this village contracted this infectious-contagious behavior. The majority of those people affected were children and young adults.

On May 21, 1962 the girls’ boarding school was opened only to be closed once again at the end of June of the same year.

The laughter outbreak spread from children to parents to the surrounding vicinities. The laughter epidemic lasted from between eighteen months to 2 years. The epidemic laughter had infected two villages leading to more than a thousand people under its effects. What’s more, fourteen schools were closed down.

Laughter in itself is good. It helps relieve tension, liven someone’s mood or appetite, make one feel at ease and according to scientists it is a medicine in its own right. However, after this disease disappeared, the symptoms that followed were worrying and of concern: fainting, respiratory problems, pain and rashes. It also included random screaming and attacks of crying.

This led to studies to be done and tests to be carried out. Blood samples from some of the students during this period of laughing attack were analyzed in top of laboratories of Kinshasa and Cairo. No signs of a contagion were found nor any abnormalities.


What really baffles researchers is: where did it come from and where did it vanish to? The most pressing question is, what was it? And, will this outbreak of laughter happen again, especially in today’s fast-moving cities of the world which have a large population?

This outbreak is known as mass hysteria, nowadays it is known officially as Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI). Mass hysteria can be defined as “a condition in which a large group of people exhibit the same state of violent mental agitation” according to Princeton. Mass hysteria is also known as collective hysteria, collective obsessional behavior or group hysteria.

Scientists believe the Tanganyika laughter was not caused by poisoning or toxins or other elements in the environment. It all originated from the mind of those people who showed symptoms of mass hysteria.

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Also known officially as Mass Psychogenic Disorder, Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) is stated to occur in people who don’t have high occupying power (a lot) meaning they are of low status. Thereby, these people of low status exhibit such symptoms of mass hysteria to indicate there is something wrong which is usually common in women.

It might be the students were stressed by the high expectations of their parents and teachers or the uncertainty of the future considering the country was beginning to emerge from the strongholds of the colonial power, Britain. It might have been caused because of the confusion of switching from African to western religion.


The educated elite including scientists believe this to be the cause of the outbreak of laughter. On the other hand, some locals believe this not to be the case. It might have been caused by witchcraft.

It is worth noting when some of these students were restrained from laughing, they would lush out. They said they felt something moving in their heads. What? They didn’t know. They felt somebody was out to get them (after them).

Also, it didn’t mean they laughed without a break for several hours or days. There were relapses. It is very hard to laugh continuously without a break as one has to have a break to maintain normal breathing or to grasp air. They were laughing with relapses or breaks in between.

As is still the case, no conclusive theory has been able to explain the cause or reason for the Tanganyika laughter epidemic.

Why is it people were infected from just watching others laugh? I am laughing and I have not told you why I am laughing but you seem to flow along, laugh, even though you don’t know why I am laughing. Is it not true when someone does something funny or says something or looks funny, we tend to laugh and not just from watching others laugh?

Tanganyika laughter epidemic

Nonetheless, why is it when watching a comedic program on television there is a background laugh? A recorded ‘laugh track?’ Is it meant to enable us to laugh along? To ignite our laugh? Do we laugh from watching or listening others laugh or what they say or do? Does laughter and humor go hand in hand? Or, doesn’t it? What made people especially the girls in Tanzania in 1962 to laugh when there was nothing funny or humorous to laugh about?

And, can laughter get out of control to infect such a large number to cause an outbreak of laughter? Lastly, the symptoms witnessed, what do they mean? Why were these symptoms of laughter manifested in many of those who were infected with this contagious behavior of laughter?

So many questions no satisfactory answers, no theory that has really tried to prove how laughter went out of control to infect people lasting for more than one year. It remains not only an unsolved mystery but also unexplained one.

Just as it appeared mysteriously, it vanished in the same way, inexplicably. And, it is known where next it might hit.


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