Zach Petroni believes that to truly know something, you have to experience it. So that’s why he spent some time working as a charcoal hauler in Kenya, loading huge bags of the fuel on a rusty, fixed-gear bike and pedaling it 20 miles into town.
He’s in Africa as the first recipient of the Raoul Wallenberg Fellowship — a $25,000 award named after one of U-M’s most heroic alumni. The annual fellowship allows graduating seniors to carry out explorations, projects or activities anywhere in the world.
Petroni is studying how local people deal with conservation efforts in their own backyards. He got interested in the issue when he went to Kenya during his junior year for a three-week course with the Graham Sustainability Institute.
“The course was really formative in my thinking,” said Petroni, who graduated last year with a bachelor’s degree from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. “It really opened my ideas to conservation and taught me the value of critical inquiry.”
In the West, conservation is often viewed to be a positive, moral effort —saving a forest or protecting a herd of elephants, Petroni says. But for the local population, it often means losing a home, farm field or job that leads to a deeper plunge into poverty.
“Historically, there have been a lot of forced resettlements,” he said. “Worldwide, it has been a violent process, where government forces moved people under the threat of force and violence.”
As he travels in Kenya, Petroni can afford to stay in guesthouses or budget hotels. But he said that would prevent him from better understanding how life is really lived in Kenya. So he stays with families instead.
He arranges home stays by asking friends if they know anyone who would be willing to host him for a few days. He has lived with subsistence farmers, a primary school teacher and a group of people who tap palm wine.
“When I find a family, I’ll go out with my tent and a bag of food and say, ‘I’m here. Don’t sugar coat anything. I want to do what you do for the next week.’ That’s the homestay,” he said.
It’s something Wallenberg would have done. As an undergraduate from Sweden studying at U-M in the 1930s, he famously dove into his new life in America, making a variety of friends and exploring the country on epic hitchhiking trips.
In a letter to his uncle, Wallenberg said, “When you travel like a tramp, things are totally different. You are in intimate contact with new people every day.”
No doubt, the experience helped sharpen the people skills Wallenberg needed later in life when he was a diplomat during World War II in Hungary, using safe houses and special passports to save tens of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.
Before the fellowship, Petroni said he read Wallenberg’s biography and was inspired by the way the Swede traveled. He views the fellowship to be both a “living and learning experience.”
It was a chance encounter that led Petroni to the temporary job hauling charcoal. He was walking with a friend in a rural area on the central coast of Kenya, about an hour and a half from Mombasa, the country’s second-largest city.
His friend introduced him to another friend who is a charcoal hauler.
“I got to see firsthand and experience his struggle and how he does it in good faith, with nothing but love in his heart and for everyone else,” Petroni said. “He makes on average 800 or 1,000 shillings ($9 or $11.50) a day and he’ll send 500 shillings of that to his son every day to pay for his school fees.”
The underlying theme of Petroni’s Wallenberg proposal was to question conservation in a firsthand way. His fellowship is almost over, and he still hasn’t reached a conclusion.
“The more time I spend, I don’t think there’s a black or white conclusion. It’s all just shades of gray,” he said. “Conservation is very place specific. In one place it can be this. In another place it could be the polar opposite. I just think my understanding of conservation has become more nuanced