There’s a photo hanging in our office, just outside my door. It’s the cover of a Xavier magazine, actually, although not one that ever saw the printing press. It’s a mock-up those of us in the office created to give to one of our former writers, Jacob Baynham, on the day he left Xavier to move back to Montana. In the photo, Jacob is sitting on a yak. His size 12 shoes are squeezed into tiny stirrups dangling from a tiny saddle. He’s holding on to a single rope, which is attached to a ring in the yak’s nose.
“Westward,” the headline reads. “Jacob heads home to Montana, turning his yak to the sun to spend his days with family, friends and fish.”
Jacob has led an interesting life—at least in comparison to most of us. In addition to having ridden a yak, he chose to attend high school in India, where his family lived through part of his youth. He returned to the U.S. to attend college at the University of Montana—so chosen not for academic reasons but because there was good fly fishing near campus. After graduating, he ventured back into the world without a job or money, exploring parts of Asia, India and the Middle East. That trek took him to Afghanistan, which is where the yak photo was taken.
From time to time, as news of the country made the headlines because of the war, he would tell us stories about his stay in the region. The stories were almost always about the people—about how good they were, which seemed to contradict the messages the grew from the war. No Taliban. No Al Qaeda. No terrorists. Perhaps he just didn’t hang out in the right places.
I was reminded of Jacob and the yak photo recently because of an email that arrived in my inbox. I get a lot of emails each day, and sometimes the effort to reply to all of them gets to be a bit overwhelming. But this one caught my attention. It came from a woman who was corresponding with a young man in Afghanistan, who told her he has never known anything in his country but war. She was shocked and saddened by this, so she created a page on Facebook where people could upload pictures of how Afghanistan used to be when, as she says, “his country was open to the world.”
What she wanted from Xavier was contact information for two alumni who wrote a story for the magazine’s website about their experience in Afghanistan. After a dozen years worth of magazines, I couldn’t recall the specific article she was referring to, but a site search quickly revealed the story. “Afghanistan Revisited,” was the title. It ran as a web exclusive with the Winter 2002 issue, the first issue after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.
The alums, Elana and Michael Hohl, recalled their days in the country and how little has changed in the 30 years since they were there. But then they offered a glimmer of hope. “Perhaps something good can still come from this death and destruction. Events since Sept. 11 have served to put Afghanistan and indeed the while Middle East, on the map. [Hopefully] the country may yet have a chance to build a stable, prosperous and terrorist-free future, a goal which would be in the best interest of the entire world.”
I forwarded the email to the Hohls, as well as to Jacob, thinking they might have something to contribute to the Facebook site—something that offers a picture of the Afghanistan they once knew and give a boy a glimpse of a world he has never known: one without war.