"A night in the African bush is a symphony of sounds under a canopy of dazzling stars. Nightjars warble a serenade while owls hoot in harmony. If you are lucky, you might hear the mighty roar of the lion claiming its prey, or the trumpeting of a bull elephant as it charges to a watering hole. More often than not, you will hear the cackling laughter of the hyena as it searches for its evening meal.
"Dog-like carnivores, hyenas are related to civets and mongooses. Their bodies have evolved in ways that enable them to survive on the harsh African plain. Their shoulders and front legs are higher than their hindquarters, allowing them to crawl and squeeze into narrow tunnels. When running, their hind feet are thrown out sideways, conserving energy and allowing them to lope tirelessly at six miles per hour. Their teeth and jaws are strong enough, to chew through bone, hoof, hides, and teeth, making them the garbage disposals of the savanna.
"While hyenas have a bad reputation as scavengers, most breeds hunt their prey as well as clean up the remains that other carnivores leave behind. Without their very thorough cleansing process, disease and pollution could easily spread.
"The 'laughing hyena' is signaling excitement, perhaps inviting others to come and join the feast or warning them of danger. The spotted hyena is the most vocal of the carnivores, with eleven different calls, including groans, whoops, grunts, growls, and giggles.
" 'Laughter is the best medicine,' my mother used to tell me. Doctors have recently discovered the truth of this maxim, suggesting that a good laugh every day promotes mental and physical health. Perhaps that's why comedy is such a universal language.
"I recall watching a Charlie Chaplin film at a rural training center on the shores of Lake Victoria, Tanzania. The largely illiterate audience of small-scale farmers and fishers were doubled over with laughter throughout the film. Chaplin's pantomime spoke to them as eloquently as to the northern audience for which it was produced.
"Laughter is very common on the African continent, even in times of hardship and trouble. In the refugee camps in Mozambique, for example, weekly cultural festivals were held in which youth showed off their talent. During the war for independence, poetry, drama, song, and dance entertained the camp for a day, helping us to forget our hunger and the dangers present in the surrounding forest, not only from wild animals but from enemy bombardment as well.
" 'Raising morale' was how these festivals were explained to me. Such morale boosting helped thousands of refugee children and their teachers to laugh and relax for a few hours, strengthening them for the week ahead. Nothing was more hilarious than watching me try to dance with them.
"The Gospels also speak of such light-hearted intervals in the lives of Jesus and the apostles wedding feasts, meals with friends, playing with children, and roasting fish on the beach. His enemies even chastised Jesus for not taking life more seriously. He advised them to celebrate while 'the bridegroom' was in their midst. Worship services in Africa are genuine celebrations, complete with song, dance, and hearty laughter. The Christian community seems to sense the value of rejoicing at least one day a week to express the undying faith of the people in the constant presence of God in their midst, through all their trials and tribulations."