Attention Deficit Disorder Prosthetic Memory Program

Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic

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Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic - © Attention Deficit Disorder Prosthetic Memory Program

Outbreak of mass hysteria – or mass psychogenic illness (MPI) – rumored to have occurred in 1962 near the village of Kashasha on the western coast of Lake Victoria in the modern nation of Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika) near the border with Uganda.

The laughter epidemic began on January 30, 1962, at a mission-run boarding school for girls in Kashasha. It started with three girls and spread throughout the school, affecting 95 of the 159 pupils, aged 12–18. Symptoms lasted from a few hours to 16 days. The teaching staff were unaffected and reported that students were unable to concentrate on their lessons. The school closed on March 18.

The epidemic spread to Nshamba, a village where several of the girls lived. In April and May, 217 mostly young villagers had laughing attacks. The Kashasha school reopened on May 21, and reclosed at the end of June. Earlier that month, the laughing epidemic spread to Ramashenye girls’ middle school, near Bukoba, affecting 48 girls.

The Kashasha school was sued for allowing the children and their parents to transmit it to the surrounding area. Other schools, Kashasha itself, and another village were affected to some degree. Eighteen months after it started, the phenomenon died off. The laughter reports were widely accompanied by descriptions of fainting, flatulence, respiratory problems, rashes, crying and screaming. In all, 14 schools were shut down and 1000 people were affected.

Christian F. Hempelmann, then of Purdue University, has theorized that the episode was stress-induced. In 1962, Tanganyika had just won its independence, he said, and students had reported feeling stressed because of higher expectations by teachers and parents. MPI, he says, usually occurs in people without a lot of power. “MPI is a last resort for people of a low status. It’s an easy way for them to express that something is wrong.”

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