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Finding Something To Laugh About In Ethiopia

Belachew Girma is the World Laughter Champion. The man, who can laugh for more than 3 hours non-stop, has just opened Ethiopia's first laughter school where they teach that cackling away is the best medicine for life's ills. Girma should

Laughter therapy for children (naomii.tumblr.com)
Laughter therapy for children (naomii.tumblr.com)
Philipp Hedemann

A man wearing white overalls is doubled up with laughter on the floor. His eyes are bulging, sweat and tears pour down his face. His legs are twitching and he is waving his arms. Is that man crazy? Is he a drug addict? Should we call a doctor?

Suddenly the man stands up, wipes the sweat and tears from his face, breathes deeply, and says in a deep, serious voice: "Now I want you to laugh like that." Belachew Girma is not crazy, he's the World Laughter Champion.

In Germany in 2008, he laughed for three hours and six minutes. Non-stop. And now in Ethiopia, a country where there is not often a lot to laugh about, he has just opened the first Laughter School.

The school's website says that people can even be trained to laugh in the face of hunger and destruction. Whether it was this claim or the site's quaint English, 22 Ethiopians have already signed up for a laughter course.

And now they're sitting in a neon-lit room on chairs placed in a circle around the man writhing on the floor. Some look confused. Others are trying hard to laugh even louder than the laughing master, although in some cases the laughter catches in their throat.

Alemayehu Anbessie is a loyal follower of the laughter guru. He's laughing so hard the veins on his forehead are popping out. It's hard not to look at his right cheek, which has a tumor the size of an orange. "I can't laugh the cancer away," says the engineer, "but the laughter helps me live with the cancer. Since I've learned how to laugh, I don't need painkillers anymore."

If some might scoff at such a claim, to champion Girma this is no laughing matter. "I used to be HIV-positive," he says. "Now I'm healthy. God healed me. Laughter is the best medicine." The way he says this brooks no discussion.

Ten years ago, the self-made psychologist was a suicidal drug addict. He had been a teacher and headmaster at a grade school, but earned so little he decided to get a dog, train it to do some tricks, and perform with it in public. Audiences loved the funny guy with the dog – and he loved audiences.

He went on to form a band, and played gigs around the country. As a musician, Girma made good enough money to buy a small store and a hotel. And he still had plenty left over to support his khat habit. For years, like many other Ethiopians, Girma chewed the euphoria-inducing leaves.

Pimps, fires and floods

He washed their bitter taste away with alcohol. He started hanging out with the wrong people, opened a night-club, pimped some women – and slept with them. He gradually lost all control over his life. His store and hotel burned down, were rebuilt and then destroyed by floods.

When his first wife fell ill, Girma underwent a medical check-up. His wife and his lover died shortly after he was diagnosed as HIV-positive. "They got it from me. I didn't want to live anymore, I wanted to die with them," he says showing a photo of himself during his darkest days.

He thought of shooting himself, but couldn't go through with it. It was then that he came across two things that would change his life: a Bible and a self-help book that recommended laughter as a way of healing.

"I devoured the contents of both books, and decided to change everything. I stopped chewing khat, stopped drinking, and started laughing – even though I didn't have anything to laugh about," he says. At first, the laughter was mostly forced but now, he says, whether he's laughing just for the sake of it, in a teaching context or in competition, it comes easy.

He reads the Bible daily. His favorite passage is Proverbs 17:22: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine but a broken spirit drieth the bones."

Girma regularly gives orphans and street kids free laughter therapy, and once a week he volunteers in schools. The rest of the time, his infectious laughter earns him good money. He has laughed in Germany, Great Britain, Israel, the U.S., and South Africa.

In Ethiopia, four laughter sessions at Girma's Laughter School cost 450 birr (20 euros) - about the same as an unskilled laborer earns per month. Along with the laughter exercises, participants are given Power Point presentations that impart bits of popular wisdom ("When life gives you lemons, make lemonade") that go down well with his students.

Gashaw Teferra registered for the course with his wife. From the outset, the businessman who studied electro-technology in Leipzig, Germany, says he found it difficult to laugh on command. But now on his third session, it's going really well.

Another course participant who works in advertising, 20-year-old Weyni Telwedebrhan, hopes to learn to laugh so infectiously that she attracts new clients. Solomon Gessesse, a school principal, is convinced that kids learn better when they laugh and that laughter is something that can be taught.

The Guinness World Records does not recognize laughter as a record category, something that annoys Girma no end and also means that he holds an unofficial world record for laughter. It should be a Guinness category: non-stop laughter, he claims, is a high-performance sport.

"When you laugh non-stop for over three hours, it's a workout for your whole body. You have aches in muscles you didn't even know you had. You feel as carefree as a newborn baby, and all you want to do is go to sleep," he says. A three-hour session is far too tiring to do on a daily basis, but Girma does do daily laughter workouts.

Students at Girma's Laughter School learn that a day without laughter is a lost day. Belachew Girma says it's been over 3,500 days since he had a lost day.

Read the original article in full in German

Photo - naomii.tumblr.com

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