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Assignment:Africa by James Darwin and Barbara Moore

(James Darwin and Barbara Moore)

Assignment Africa

Chapter 1


American Woman Faces Flogging, Hard Labor in Zilawe

By Barbara Moore


December 10, 2017-MOLABAYO, ZILAWE

Meghan Shanahan, 25, of New Jersey faces a possible sentence of flogging and up to twenty years of hard labor after being arrested by Zilawean authorities several days ago on charges of insulting the President and attempting to overthrow the government.  The charges are based on posts on her Twitter account.


It all started five days ago with a call from a guy in New Jersey.  “Goldman, here,” I said as I picked up the phone.   He told me the story as I sat in my office, looking out past Eighth Avenue towards the Hudson and the beautiful expanses of the Garden State beyond, wondering if I could see his house as we spoke.  He had gotten my number from a mutual acquaintance and thought I could help his daughter out of the jam she was in and get a good story in the bargain.

He texted me a couple of pictures of his daughter, taken last summer in their backyard.  Not bad looking, in an innocent, hippyish sort of way-a thick head of Irish red hair-she looked natural and sort of outdoorsy.  It was hard to tell about her body given the loose fitting clothes, but I guessed it wasn’t bad.  She certainly looked like the type that might have gone to Africa hoping to change the world and ended up in a pickle.

Finally, we hung up and I sat for a while watching the planes descending into Newark.  I had been a lot of places in my career with the newspaper of record-Kabul, Baghdad, Paris, Washington, among others- but I hadn’t had the pleasure of visiting Zilawe.  I doubted I had missed much.

But I figured this story was worth looking into.   I sipped my fourth coffee of the day and considered who would be the lucky reporter to take on this task.  I picked up the phone and dialed the extension, “Barb, would you come in here for a moment please?”


Barbara Moore was one of the stars among the younger generation of journalists at the International Desk.  Mid-30s, brown hair, slim and fit, she was just back from a year in Beijing, where she’d done pretty well for herself.  I liked her, but the paper had strict policies about hanky-panky between editors and staff.  I wasn’t about to put my job on the line for a fling, so I kept things 100% professional.

There was a knock at the door.  “Come in, Barb”, I said, loudly.  She sat in the chair in front of my desk, flashing some leg, looking at me expectantly.  “I just got a call from a guy over in Jersey named Robert Shanahan.  It seems his daughter is in a scrape over in Zilawe.”

“Zilawe?  Geez, Jerry, that’s a real hell hole from what I hear.  But why is he calling us and not the Embassy there or the State Department?”

“He has spoken with them, of course.  They were the ones that informed him that his daughter, Meghan, was arrested.  But he’s very concerned and thinks some press attention will help prod them into more vigorous action.”

“That’s very nice,” she said, “But where’s the story?  American kids get into trouble overseas all the time and we usually leave that for the tabloids.  What did she do anyway?”

“She tweeted some stuff about their President Parambe. You know, he’s been President since the Stone Age and isn’t going anywhere.”  Moore rolled her eyes to indicate that she was aware of the politics of that region. 

“You wanna see what she wrote?” I asked.  “Shanahan also sent me a few pics of Meghan.”   Moore got up from the chair, perched her behind on the edge of my desk and bent over so she could see the screen.  That the pose happened to show me most of her well-toned legs was a fringe benefit of my job, I guess.

I scrolled through the pictures.  “I suppose she’s not bad if you go for that lost hippie-girl type,” she said, suggesting she’d think less of me if I did. But I’m old enough that I had had college girlfriends whom Meghan Shanahan sort of reminded me of.

Then, I showed Barb Meghan’s Twitter page.  She had written that Parambe was corrupt and brutal. “Of course, all that’s 100% true and not even the half of it,” I said, “But the man took personal insult and wants her punished.”

“I still don’t see the story, Jerry.  What’s the angle?”

“The angle, Barb, is that in Zilawe, they flog people for this kind of thing.”

“Flog?” she replied, incredulously, “Like in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty?’  And they would do that to a woman, and an American woman at that?”

“I don’t know how they do it exactly and I don’t know if they will do it to Meghan.  That’s what I want you to go there and find out.”

“Me?  Go to Zilawe?  You’re joking, right Jerry? ” she asked, looking shocked. 

“Nope,” I replied.  “Pack your shit and head over there ASAP.  You can catch a flight to London tonight and get a plane from there to Molabayo tomorrow.  The Embassy has arranged a visa for you.  If you get there fast, we can beat the other papers to the story.   Could be a promotion in it for you, Barb.”

 “But what about Frank Peterson in Johannesburg?” she asked.  I could tell she wasn’t crazy about the idea.  After all, she’d just returned to New York from a year in Beijing a couple of weeks ago and I knew she was looking forward to some home time to catch up with friends and family and enjoy the pleasures of the Big Apple.  “He’s much closer and knows the territory better.”

‘Nice try, Moore,’ I thought, looking down at her legs.  I shook my head.  “There’s a miners strike in South Africa.  Things are looking like they could get dicey and I want him there to cover it.  Besides, I think a woman will be able to get the girl to open up and maybe charm a few of the officials there, who are almost all men, into talking.  You are good at charming men, aren’t you, Barb?”

She was certainly doing her best to charm me and I was by no means immune, but her legs convinced me she was the right person for this job. 

She smiled. “Well, I can’t say this sounds much like news that’s fit to print, but if you insist, Jerry, I’ll do it,” she allowed, feigning reluctance.  Actually, I could tell she was intrigued.

“Good, Barb,” I replied.  “I knew I could count on you.  Go see travel about the flights and then go home and pack.  Have a nice trip,” I told her, turning back to the monitor on my desk, but looking up to catch a quick glimpse of her tight little behind as she left my office.  I could swear she wiggled it at me, but maybe she was just in a hurry to get to Zilawe.


Chapter 2


Molabayo Detention Center, December 6, 2017.


My parents had certainly been right to have been worried when I told them I was going to Zilawe to work on development. “Meghan,” my Mom had said, “I’ve read bad things about that country.  Please don’t go; give college another try-your Dad and I will pay for it.”  

Of course I hadn’t listened, just as I hadn’t listened when they’d told me to stay in college instead of dropping out to camp out with Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park.  And just like then, I was paying a price for my decision.

With only a few semesters of credits towards my degree, there weren’t a lot of great jobs available.  It seemed like I’d worked in half the coffee houses in Brooklyn, bouncing from overcrowded apartment to overcrowded apartment, trying to survive in the City on a crappy salary.

Finally, I’d given up and moved back to New Jersey, to the bedroom I’d grown up in, taking lousy retail jobs in the various malls that the Garden State is renowned for.  When I saw the ad from Aid International to work helping poor, downtrodden people overseas, I thought, ‘Why the fuck not?  See a bit of the world, do some good.’  It sure didn’t seem that Occupy had much to show for their efforts, but maybe this would actually accomplish something.

When I got to Zilawe, I found it was worse than I expected.  I had seen poor people back home in Newark and Harlem and elsewhere, but there was no comparison.  These Zilaweans were literally starving.  Meanwhile that disgusting old gangster, so-called “President” Parambe, lived in a palace, had a gorgeous house in London, a penthouse in Manhattan, a chateau in France, and billions stashed way in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.  And anyone who protested this state of affairs soon disappeared into a labor camp or an unmarked grave.

After a few months working in the countryside trying to get clean water to poor farmers, I was just so mad and depressed by the injustice of it all.  I was on a brief leave in Molabayo, up late alone drinking wine in the house Aid International kept for the use of staffers passing through the capital.  Out of boredom and frustration, I wrote a tweet about how Parambe was stealing food from children.

I had heard that the old dictator was becoming ever more paranoid with advancing age and that the Security Services were particularly on edge lately, what with increased activities by the rebels.  Still, I figured they wouldn’t do anything too bad to an American, probably just deport me, which I wouldn’t really have minded by this point.  In the end, I decided that the world needed to know what was going on here, the oppression and the corruption, so I hit “Post”.

Early the next morning, while it was still dark, I awoke to loud insistent banging at the door.   I was sleeping in the nude because of the heat, but I threw on a shirt, doing up enough of the buttons to cover my breasts, and pulled on a pair of loose cotton trousers. 

There on the door step were four khaki-clad Security men.  “Are you Meghan Shanahan?” the one with the most stripes on his sleeve asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  It seemed pointless to deny it since they obviously knew who I was.  “What is this about?”

“You must come with us,” he insisted.

“Can I change into my day clothes?  Put on some shoes?”

“She must think we are taking her to breakfast at the Presidential Palace,” the leader said.  The rest of them laughed.  Then the one in charge grabbed my hair and started pulling me through the door, scraping my upper chest and arm against the jamb.

“Owww,” I yelled. “Stop it!  Look, I’m bleeding.”

He pulled even harder on my hair, forcing me to look at him as best I could through the tears that clouded my eyes from pain and fear.  “You think this is a joke, Ms. Shanahan?”  I shook my head.   “I can assure you it is not,” he continued.  “We know about your tweet.  Insulting our President and trying to overthrow our government is a very serious matter.”

He released my hair. “Now you have a choice.  You can walk to our truck like a nice young lady or we can drag you there like a misbehaving child.  Which will it be?” he sneered at me.  My heart was pounding in my chest.

I took a step towards the tan colored pickup truck that stood in the driveway.  The stones protruding from the desiccated dirt dug into my bare soles, but I kept going, for fear of what these men would do if I stopped.

Once I reached the truck, one of the men opened the tailgate and climbed into the cargo bed.  He reached down to grab my hand and started pulling me up, while one of the others put his hands on my ass and pushed me over the tailgate, then climbed into the cargo bed with me and his comrade.  The leader got into the passenger seat in the cab, while the other Security man got into the driver’s seat and threw the truck in gear.  We drove off into the early morning stillness.

The sun was just coming over the horizon as we pulled into the Detention Centre, but that was the last I saw of its brightness for a while.  The Security men hustled me into a small windowless room and sat me in a small wooden chair facing a metal desk.  They drew my arms behind my back and handcuffed my wrists to a crossbar on the chair back.  Then, they drew plastic zip ties, like the ones I had seen the cops use in Zuccotti Park, around my ankles and fastened them to the chair legs, which were bolted to the concrete floor.  They left without saying a word.

I sat for some time, perhaps a few hours, though there was no clock nor did any sunlight penetrate the room, so I can’t be sure.  Periodically, I heard screams coming from down the hall.  I couldn’t say if they were a man or a woman or even if they were human, since they were wordless, animal cries.  I had heard rumors that the Security Services tortured people with electricity and waterboarding to make them confess and give up co-conspirators.   Now I knew that those rumors were well founded.

Nevertheless, I didn’t think they would do that to me.  After all, our government wouldn’t allow a US citizen to be tortured in a foreign country, would they?  Still, I had to sit and listen to whatever poor soul was suffering just down the hall.

Finally, the screams stopped, whether because the victim had given them what they wanted or died or passed out, I do not know.  Eventually, the door opened.  I turned to see a man enter-he was very dark skinned, with a shaven head.  He carried a plain manila file folder and a laptop.  Two of the men who had arrested me followed him, standing behind my chair.

The shaven-headed one sat down at the desk without looking at me or addressing me, examining the papers in the folder and clicking away at his laptop.  I thought of protesting my arrest, but decided that might be unwise.  Finally, he put the folder down and looked up at me.  “Ms. Shanahan, I am Tuma.  I am with the Security Services.  That is all you need to know.  Would you like some water?”

I nodded and heard one of the men leave the room.  Her returned with a bottle of water and stood in front of me, offering me the bottle, which I couldn’t accept since my hands were cuffed behind my back.  “Would you uncuff my hands, please?” I demanded.

“Ms. Shanahan, you have surely been in Zilawe long enough to know that we are in a severe drought,” Tuma said.  “Water is very precious, farmers are starving for lack of it and I hate to see it wasted.”  The man holding the bottle dumped it on my head, letting it run down my cheeks soaking my cotton shirt.  I managed to thirstily lick a few drops off my chin.

Angry now, I protested, “What is the meaning of this?  I’m an American citizen here to help your country.  I haven’t done anything. Now let me go!”

Tuma smiled.  He typed something into his laptop, got up from the desk, and brought the device over to me, holding it so I could see the screen.  “This is your Twitter account, is it not Ms. Shanahan?”  It had my name and picture at the top of the page, so there seemed no point to denying it.  I nodded.

He scrolled to the bottom, to the tweet from last night about President Parambe.  “And did you write this?”

 I hesitated for a moment.  It was mine, of course, and it was 100% true.  If I denied it, those screams from down the hall would probably be mine and I would end up admitting the truth anyway.  “Yes,” I replied, nervously. 

Tuma grinned.  “It is very wise of you to be honest, Ms. Shanahan.  The truth always comes out eventually anyway.  If you will sign a confession, I will see what I can do to resolve this matter as efficiently as possible.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. Tuma wanted to help me.  The Zilawean government didn’t want an international black eye.  I would sign their confession; they would escort me to the airport and put me on a plane out of the country with a warning not to return.  I would be home for Christmas and Zilawe would just be an interesting experience I could impress my friends with. 

I pulled on the cuffs that held my wrists.  “I can’t sign with my hands behind my back, can I?”  Tuma pulled some papers out of the folder as one of the guards bent to unshackle my wrists.