Kenyan fashion designer Anna Trzebinski remembers her days at Scottish school, Fettes
I lived the happiest of barefoot African childhoods, free, independent and with almost no parental supervision. I drove myself everywhere, signed for what I wanted at the shops, and at the Muthaiga club, and disappeared into the bush, Friday to Sunday. Nairobi of the early 1980s was our playground, life was good.
When I was 15, my mother decided that I needed to attend a British boarding school to drill some much needed ‘finishing’ into me and to drive out the so-called ‘jungle bunny’. I had been educated at the German school in Nairobi so going to Britain was going to be a rude awakening: strict boarding school under ample supervision.
My beloved father, Michael Cunningham-Reid, and I set off to figure out which educational institution would accept me. My mother had great designs on the outcome of this education but no idea how we would achieve this miraculous transformation, so he and I were in charge. My father, not being the most practical of men, racked up hundreds of pounds on black cab meters who drove for miles and waited for hours, as we searched for the right school.
My favourite was Stowe but because the housemistress at Fettes had spent time in Tanzania and would hopefully relate to this tumbleweed… It was decided that off to Scotland I would be sent.
I was filled with such dread but the bar was set for the challenge and I was determined to see out the next two years. Mostly, I was concerned about the weather; the damp, the grey, the cold. How would I manage away from Kenya, my beloved homeland? Once I was signed up all parental guidance fell away again so I was left to manoeuvre uncharted waters without a compass. That alone taught me an awful lot.
What can I say about my days at Fettes? A beautiful school with a sterling reputation and rich history, wonderful teachers, amazing extra curricular activities and great kids. And then there was me and a handful of other international fly-ins.
I was among the first girls to be accepted into the newly built girls’ house at Fettes but to soften the landing I thought it wiser to live in digs with a lovely Edinburgh family – the Ushers… and so it began.
Circumstance was kind to me: my most treasured teacher took great pride in teaching me Scottish country dancing, something I still love although we never get to practise back home. I made great friends and had a lot of fun. The weather delivered beautifully on the promise of total misery – grey, damp, cold, but on the days when the sun shone it was surely the most glorious place and there were many similarities to home.
The wilderness, the desolation in parts, the clan system was so like Kenya where the various families and their ‘clansmen’ are known by their family name – and, of course, the famous Maasai blankets are in fact kilts which the Maasai undid upon being gifted them by Scottish missionaries.
Like Kenyans, the Scots know how to party. We attended incredible balls on the Isle of Bute, and I spent my weekends exploring: the borders with my beloved friends, the Mackenzies, or up north in Sutherland, where I felt the spirit of the Vikings.
Fettes went way beyond my expectations with the most wonderfully warm, safe, kind, loving environment filled with truly wonderful people. It was not the easiest time of my life and I used to cry my eyes out for days before flying back to Edinburgh, but the entire experience was a huge valuable life lesson in how to endure, adapt and overcome with joy and embrace what is right in front of you, and in that moment.
And as for Scotland, well I fell in love with its people, their kindness and the beauty of the land with its rich incredible traditions so deeply that I chose to do my undergraduate MA at Aberdeen. I then moved on to the London School of Economics until the call of the wild eventually led me back home to my beloved Kenya.
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