Renias Mhlongo and I come from vastly different backgrounds.
As a child, I ate three nourishing meals a day. Renias was malnourished until age 13. I went to a good model C school and qualified with a matric. Renias did not go to school. He grew up as a hunter-gatherer and learned ecological literacy.
He is extraverted and confident. I am introverted and reserved.
He loves soccer and I love rugby.
We speak different languages.
Apartheid’s segregation policies meant we lived separately.
Under this system, my people were advantaged. Renias’s people were exploited. My safety net is my skills and financial foundation. Renias’s is his tightknit community.
When we select someone for our team, Renias chooses someone he thinks needs an income and a purpose. I will choose someone who has the requisite skills and knowledge to perform the task.
On first meeting, I labeled Renias as uneducated, entitled and angry. He saw me as disinterested, arrogant and apprehensive.
What Renias represented threatened me. And to him, I was temporary and exploitable.
We have profoundly different views of the world.
And yet we formed a productive and trusting relationship that has endured for 25 years.
This has produced genuine fruits.
- We co-created the Tracker Academy NGO, which has trained 170 professional wildlife trackers.
- We’ve traveled the world. Training trackers and developing conservation programmes in remote and wild places.
- Our cultural diversity keynote presentation is in high demand from corporate clients.
- We have co-created a product called Tracking Success. This introduces the tracking metaphor to business leaders to improve organisational health.
Trust has sustained us through thick and thin. What did we do to build it in our relationship?
It boils down to five things.
- Shared experiences
We have experienced terror, loss, deprivation, thrill, and plenty together. And we survived!
We’ve escaped animal attacks. Confronted financial burden. Faced family loss. Endured freezing temperatures. We’ve traveled widely and experienced the joy of our students graduating.
Facing hardship, adventure and risk together has unified us.
It has built a deep well of shared meaning, and respect between us. We dismantled barriers and built a relationship – a place where we both belong.
- Traveling out of our comfort zones
We have opened our lives to each other. We learned each other’s languages. We invested personal time to visit and learn about each other’s families. We both adopted the respectful behavioural practices of one another’s cultures.
Renias got certified as a guide and I qualified as a tracker. I learned the rules of soccer and he learned the rules of rugby.
At times this was a struggle. It took intention and conscious effort to overcome obstacles. Learning about each other’s lives and circumstances remains constant.
- Committing to competence
Our trust was founded on competence. From the moment Renias saved us from a leopard I trusted in his ability. Competence became our currency. Over time I developed technical competence too. Now Renias relies on my ability.
We expect continuous self-improvement and candid feedback. Developing our expertise is both our individual and collective responsibility – a commitment we have made to each other.
There is no ‘leader’ in the hierarchical sense. We both lead. Authority is assumed based on the skillset required in a given moment – it is dynamic. We are equally accountable.
- Demonstrating character
We practice straight talk, in a respectful way. But we don’t sugarcoat. This is hard sometimes, but we know it’s vital. We are also very transparent, especially with money. Trust flows because we are honest and vulnerable with each other.
We regularly discuss our victories, failures and financial situation. Feedback is regular and we admit to our mistakes. We are loyal to each other, but not blindly.
We both experience a strong sense of mutual support and allegiance. Our default position is to trust – a characteristic that has grown with time.
- Being consistent
Today our friendship is deep and alive. This is no accident. We show up for each other repeatedly and can depend on each other. This has been so important.
Reliance and dependability is a feature of our relationship. It sustains it. In the beginning, I was purposeful about my words and actions until they became second nature. And Renias always demonstrates remarkable calmness in challenging interactions.
We know that a breakdown in our relationship poses a safety risk to us. We accept that our relationship is the priority if we are to remain a productive team. We only have one agenda: to be the best wildlife tracking team we can be.
The power of trust has enriched our lives. And has given our relationship an unshakeable foundation.
Initially, the odds were stacked against us. But we kept at it, invested in each other and stayed the course.
I’m so glad we did.