Demons or mass hysteria

They are at it again – ghosts have attacked another school!

ghosts in Kilifi

I have often wondered whether these ghost invasions happen in other places with the frequency of those in Kenya. It also really annoys me when children suffer mass hysteria and the blame is laid squarely at the devil’s feet. I wondered whether it was a Kenyan malady : the mass hysteria in schools and the blaming the devil business – and being the scientist that I am, I decided to search scientific literature for some hard data. I did not really expect to find anything so I was really pleased to find a paper written by an African scholar.

Demobly Kokota of the Department of Mental Health, College of Medicine, University of Malawi, looked at all published episodes of mass hysteria in African schools. The findings were put together and published by the Malawi Medical Journal in 2011. You can find the paper:

Since Demobly searched only what was published in scientific journals or on news pieces available on the internet, it is not hard to imagine that her report is only the tip of an iceberg. Stories like those end up as small 50-word pieces like the one I pasted on this blog and it ends there. However, it is a starting point.

Demobly mentions fainting and screaming episodes in a girl school that had 50 girls in a South African school taken to hospital. The outbreaks of mass hysteria reported in three schools in South Africa were all attributed to the devil.

Tanzania has the record of a huge laughter epidemic in 1962. The epidemic was said to have been triggered by a joke told in a boarding school that got a small group of students laughing. The laughter spread to the whole school, it got so bad, the school was closed. However, the students spread the epidemic to the villages. At one time, thousands of people were caught up in the laughter epidemic which took 18 months to die off. It was clearly no laughing matter.

Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Uganda – all have stories to tell. Most involving girl schools and preachers being called in, to remove demons.

Mass hysteria, Demobly says, is a social phenomenon where healthy people suddenly believe they have been made ill by an external factor. Symptoms reported include: abdominal pain, chest tightness, dizziness, fainting, headaches, hyperventilation, vomiting, palpitations, screaming.

Symptoms follow a trigger, some psychological strain over weeks or months – one person, the index case, starts exhibiting a symptom. The pent up anxiety in others who observe or hear the index case, induces them to follow suit. Before long, dozens are undergoing some almost uniform physical manifestation. It is more common among girls and the strain of exams is a common trigger.

Demobly concludes that mass hysteria is a result of extreme stressful situations that students encounter that are enhanced by face to face visual communication, indirect conversation or gossip and made far worse by mass media. The paper insists that authority figures should not waste time looking for diagnosis but make strong statements denying the role of whatever factor (demons or others) the students blame.

Splitting the children up by closing the schools also hastens the end of mass hysteria. Putting too much effort into solving the problem or allowing the media in, only exacerbates the situation. If most African countries are like Kenya, stories on mass hysteria do not make it into headlines, which the media must be commended for doing.

Mass hysteria in schools is not limited to Africa. There was the now famous story of the 20 girls from of Le Roy High School in Buffalo, New York in 2011.

The poor girls were the focus of much media attention when they started twitching and making odd noises. This unnecessary media attention made a bad situation worse. However, there was no mention of demons in the list of things that would have led to the hysteria. Many blamed it on environmental contamination of some sort.

Back home, I believe that we shall see more and more cases of mass hysteria in Kenya schools in the coming years until we pay attention to our very stressed up children.

The exams at the end of primary school will determine whether you go to Alliance or some backyard high school and if life is really not smiling your way, one of those buildings on the first floors of some towns where a D+ is the top scorer. The primary school exams, it is drilled into our little ones, barely teens, is the key to the rest of their life.

On top of this, we are facing a security crisis.

After Westgate we were scared of going to the malls, now Gikomba was bombed and we don’t know where is safe for us. When tourists were being flown out of hotels, we all wondered whether someone knew something they were not telling us and some people did not let their children go to school in Mombasa for a few days.

Blaming mass hysteria on the devil and his demons is being plain lazy. Let’s stop with the laziness and make some serious decisions that will enable children to be children again.

One comment

  • Sam

    Absolutely Tabs, well spotted. Our children deserve their ‘age of innocence’. Once lost, through stress, fear or simply getting older, it never comes back. It is such a small time in a persons life, surely children deserve to be naive and innocent for that time. Sam