By Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Sociology
There are different types of laughs. There is a laugh that is brief and may be through the nose or with a slight opening gasping sound through the mouth. There is laughter in which people make delightful guttural sounds. These laughs may last at the most 30 seconds. The belly laugh is different. The belly laugh starts from below the belly button and just above the waist. It moves slowly, rippling to the chest and finally to the open mouth. In the process the whole chest rocks up and down as loud barking sounds involuntarily escape from the open mouth. Sometimes the person bends over with their right-hand holding back their upper chest. The rocking chest and barking goes on for a while. You run out of breath, tears come out of the eyes, and sometimes snort that you cannot easily wipe away.
People may laugh every day. But belly laughs are so rare that one tends to distinctly remember what caused them. A few years ago, I was spending a week in my home village in the Lundazi district of the Eastern province of rural Zambia in Southern Africa. I was visiting my parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, uncles, aunts, numerous young nephews, nieces and other relatives. My mother was the funniest in our family of 9 siblings. She was in her 80s at the time.
My mother and I talked about different topics but often the topics were about food. What she had cooked or eaten that day, how she had enjoyed it, and food cravings. We talked about some of the delicious rare hard to get village foods in our household daily menus and cuisines.
One day, I went on some business riding the bicycle all day into town in Lundazi and came back at about 6 pm. I found my mother sitting on her usual spot outside her house looking very somber. I greeted and asked how her day was.
“Not so good,” she responded.
“What happened, mother?”
“We have been eating vegetables for our meals now for too many days. I have had this serious craving to eat delicious chicken. But I did not and could not eat chicken today.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Your sisters-in-law had promised to cook chicken. But they forgot to ask the children to chase and catch the chicken. Your young nephews and nieces left to go to school early at 7:00am this morning. So, all day there was no one to catch the chicken in the whole village.”
I smiled and a muffled scoff escaped my mouth as my belly had the first rock.
“Couldn’t my sisters-in-law catch the chicken?”
“You should know this,” my mother looked at me in askance. “Do you remember as a boy chasing the village chicken? It sprints very fast, takes off briefly into the air during the chase, zig-zags, and runs in and out of bushes.” My belly laughs were uncontrollable.
“You sisters-in-laws tried chasing the chicken for a short while. The chicken ran and hid under the nkhokwe silo food storage structure. When it reemerged, the chicken was re-energized. The two women were soon winded and it is very awkward for two grown adults to chase the cunning small village chicken. For munthu mulala (adult person) you lose your dignity.” My belly laughs continued as I hollered sitting in my chair while rocking my chest up and down with my right palm on my chest.
“I thought of helping them chase the chicken,” my mother said with a straight face. “But I am an old woman mchekuru, who is eighty years old. What if I fall, break my bones and even die while chasing the chicken? Can you imagine the news that would spread like wildfire in all these surrounding villages? The old woman died chasing a chicken because of nkhuli (a special Tumbuka language term for craving for meat). I would embarrass the whole village and family”.
My ribs were hurting because I had been belly laughing for at least five minutes. I had to stop. I was afraid I was going to die. I wiped my tears.
My mother passed away at the age of 88 in 2018. People who induce belly laughter in others know how to instinctively press several buttons raising gears of laughter so that your belly laughs continue and get louder the more they describe the funny incident. If you have had a good life, you should remember a few of these very serious belly laughs of a lifetime.
Isolation, loneliness, suicide, depression, political conflict, mass shootings, anger, and terrible news comes from our being tethered to the cell phone and the internet. We could use therapeutic belly laughs.