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Laughter is best medicine in Ethiopia

 INSP 21 March 2019

In 2008, Belachew Girma laughed for three hours and six minutes, non-stop. In Ethiopia, a country where most people do not have too much to laugh about, he has since established Africa´s first school of laughter. “No one is poor as long as he can still laugh,” says the ‘laughter master’. (932 Words) - By Philipp Hedemann

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‘Laughter Master’ Belachew Girma teaches Ethiopians how laughing out loud can help to cope.  Photo: Philipp Hedemann

A man in white doctor's overalls rolls on the floor and laughs hysterically. His eyes bulge, sweat and tears pour down his flushed face, saliva streams from the corners of his mouth. His legs quiver, he flails, he tears at his firmly-knotted tie, gasping for air. Is he insane? On drugs? In need of a doctor?

Suddenly, the lunatic gets up, wipes the sweat, spit and tears away, takes a deep breath and says with a deep, serious voice: "Now I want you to laugh like this." Belachew Girma is not mad; he is the world's laughtermaster.

"We give training in how to laugh about famine and destruction," says the web page of the institute. Perhaps it was these strange goals that convinced 22 Ethiopians to enrol for the laughter seminar. In a neon-lit room they sit in a circle around the man who rolls on the floor. Some of them look irritated. Others, keen to please their master, try to drown out his laughter with their own.

Alemayehu Anbessie is a devoted follower of the laughter guru. Thick blood vessels appear on his forehead, as he joins in with the world champion, but they can´t distract from his right cheek. A cancer tumor as big as an orange scars his face grotesquely. "I can´t laugh away the cancer, but laughing helps me to live with it. Since I learnt how to laugh, I don´t need to take painkillers anymore," the 58 year old engineer says.

Orthodox doctors would maybe think something was funny about the laughtermaster's model student, but Girma is serious. "Laughter is the best medicine," he says in a voice that accepts no disagreement. With god and gallows humour, Girma´s transformation from a suicidal drug addict to an ever-laughing, self-taught psychologist started nearly ten years ago.

Once, Girma was a teacher. But as a teacher you cannot make money in Ethiopia. So Girma got himself a dog, taught it some tricks and started performing with the animal. The audience liked the funny guy with the dog, and the funny guy liked the audience. After the dog show, he started a band and toured the country. The salaries were not bad. Girma could buy a little shop and a hotel, and still had a lot of money for qat.

"In Ethiopia there are many problems but when we laugh, we can solve them more easily!"

Many years, Girma chewed the leaves that can bring on schizophrenia. He washed down the bitter taste with plenty of alcohol. He got to know the wrong people, opened a nightclub, made money with prostitutes - and slept with them. He lost control over his own life. The hotel and the shop burnt down, and when he had just rebuilt it a flood destroyed them both again.

When his first wife got ill, Girma also went to see a doctor. Shortly after he got the diagnosis "HIV-positive," his wife and his lover died. "They got it from me. I just wanted to follow them," Girma says. A photo from his darkest days shows him, qat-crazed, pointing a revolver at the bottle of beer balanced on his feet. At the time Girma often considered aiming the weapon not just at the demon drink, but also at his head. He did not. Instead, the once docile Christian came across a bible and a self-help book, in which the healing power of laughter was praised.

"I devoured the two books and decided to change my life. I stopped chewing qat and drinking alcohol and began to laugh, though there was not much to laugh about," Girma tells. His favourite words from the bible are: "A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones" from the proverbs.

The Bible and the laughter were the catalysts in Girma´s damascene conversion. Two girls became half-orphans through him, and now he helps orphans in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to laugh their way back into life.

At the beginning, Helima looks shyly to the floor, while Girma kneels in front of her in the garden of the street kid project "Let me be a child" and chuckles loudly. Soon she joins the laughter of the sixfold father and tears of laughter pour down her cheeks. "I am always happy when Belachew comes. He showed me how to laugh just like this," says the ten year old, who lost both her laughter, and father, five years ago.

Regularly, Girma offers his laughter therapy to orphans, half orphans and street kids for free, once a week he teaches at a school without charge. Apart from this, he is laughing all the way to the bank. Four laughter sessions cost 450 birr, about as much as an unskilled worker earns in a month. As well as the vocal practical exercises, the participants are also given diary mottoes like "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade" or  "No one is poor as long as he can still laugh." The laughter students like it.

"In Ethiopia there are many problems. When we laugh, we can solve them more easily," says Girma, who set the official world record for laughter in Dachau (Germany). One of his diary mottoes is: "A day without laughter is a lost day." Girma did not lose a single day in the last 3500.

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