Irish eyes are still smiling in Baluchistan

Clan chieftainess: How a nurse from County Kerry became the ruler of wild mountain tribesmen
Click to follow

Pishin, Baluchistan

This is the story of an Irishwoman who opened an ice factory in the desert borderlands of Baluchistan - a place of whirlwinds, blood-red mountains and extreme heat - and who became a tribal leader.

The ice was nice for the Baluchis, who are staggered by temperatures in the summer of over 125F. But what the Baluchis appreciated even more was the Irish woman's cool head and her honesty.

Epic feuds blow up like desert whirlwinds among the Baluch tribes, and their chieftains tend to be men with fearsome moustaches who swagger about with belts full of pistols and daggers. Yet with only the strength of her will, Jennifer Wren Musa was chosen as leader of the prominent Musa clan and was the first woman from the Baluch tribes to be sent to the National Assembly.

Mrs Musa, now 78, wears a traditional shalwar kameez, with a dupatta shawl to protect her pale Irish complexion. Her eyes are the grey-blue of her ice, and she gives the impression of being far taller than she really is.

To explain how a girl from County Kerry came to become a Baluch matriarch, "Auntie Jennifer", as she is known here, pointed to an old photograph hanging on the wall next to daggers and a tiger skin. It showed a proud man in a long beard, and a small boy dressed in embroidered silks like a playful, miniature genie. Then, another photograph, circa 1942: a group portrait of undergraduates at Exeter College, Oxford, on their way to a ball with their silk-gowned girl-friends. She puts her finger on a handsome student. It was the genie grown up.

"His name was Qazi Musa, and he was studying philosophy. I was a nurse at Oxford during the war, and we fell in love," said Mrs Musa. In all his descriptions of Baluchistan - the slow grace of a camel caravan moving along the floor of ominous, iron-coloured mountains - there were no words that could explain to a Kerry girl the total absence of greenery.

Qazi Musa also warned of another difficulty. His parents had already married him off, at 14, long before he entered Oxford. "He offered to divorce his first wife, but I said it wasn't necessary. She lives down the road from here. We're good friends," Mrs Musa said. They married, she took the name Jennifer Jehan Zeba, and they went to live in Pishin, in an ancestral home where the mud walls are two feet thick to protect against the heat and marauding tribes.

Although the Baluch are strict Muslims who keep their women veiled and in purdah, Mrs Musa did not find that wives or daughters were mistreated. "That's a lot of old nonsense. These tough Baluch men all listen to their mothers," she laughed.

Her nursing proved useful. Often, Mrs Musa would go up into the mountain villages, bringing medicine and dressing wounds. One day, a nomad wandered through, asking for water. "I went into the kitchen and brought him buttermilk. When I came out, he was telling my driver how he'd heard that the Queen of England had given an Englishwoman to a Baluch lord. I didn't have a heart to tell him that it was me in my filthy clothes. I think he expected me to be sitting grandly on a throne."

After her husband was killed in a car crash, Mrs Musa thought of going back to Ireland with her son, Ashraf, then 14. "We didn't have much money, but Ashraf told me, 'Mummy, I can't leave. This is my country'." A naturalised Pakistani, she was persuaded to stand for the national assembly. There, she crossed swords over the drafting of the constitution with the late prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, father of the present premier, Benazir. "He thought he could charm me, but I resisted." She set up the country's first family planning programme and the country's first women's association before democracy was crushed by a military coup.

"I couldn't even do any social work, so I just closed my gate and cultivated the garden," she recalled. She planted pomegranate trees and roses at the edge of the desert. Then she sold ice to tribesmen. Today, the lawlessness of Afghanistan is spilling across the desert frontier. Kidnappings are now commonplace, and foreigners are warned away from Baluchistan. The new marauders no longer have muskets but tanks and heavy artillery. This doesn't worry "Auntie Jennifer", though. She wants to build a library next to her pomegranate trees.