MY wife’s tribe are spread on either side of the South Sudan-Uganda border. Her great-great-grandfather was the paramount chief of the Madi and had a rough time with the Arab slave traders and their equally brutal Turkish army supporters in the late -19th century.

He spared the tribe from further losses by agreeing to become a Muslim but lost a son, who was taken as a hostage to guarantee good faith of the tribe and likely died in Arabia, far from home.

His successor negotiated with officials of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium about their ancestral land round Nimule, a small bustling town on the Nile.

The British official abruptly saw the way forward when several hundred silent but armed Madi rose from the dense grass surrounding the dirt airstrip on which his biplane had landed after one of the colonial soldiers rudely gestured with his rifle at Chief Surur.

Two years ago, I became an elder of the tribe. My elevation in status was painless. There were obligations but also a kudos or two. The upsides included being given a chair with armrests at formal meetings in the family’s thatched gazebo as opposed to scrabbling round on the floor seeking a space on a grass mat.

Elders are also served food first, a young niece pouring water over the hands before and after the meal, which is always eaten with the fingers of one hand.

I could wear the delightfully cool Madi cotton tunic but was wary of the white turban unless a nimble-fingered girl was around to secure it. Wearing the family Reid clan tartan kilt was not approved by my African clan who tactfully observed the high temperatures and humidity would inevitably result in the scratching of itchy loins, thus lowering concentration at crucial moments in an argument.

When our family were hosts, I was expected to advise on alcoholic drinks. If a fellow elder was likely, on the evidence of his previous track record, to be obstructive or overbearing, I ensured a plentiful supply of home-brewed waragi, a sugar-cane based spirit, was at hand. This was offered to him by the cupful before any fraught subject was to be debated.

The negative burdens were the erratic starting times of family meetings and the wildly elastic agendas of the larger community ones, which tended to be boisterous, open-ended and foodless.

Worse was the procession of relatives turning up for advice at our farm during the day, although it may have been purest chance that this often coincided with the main meal being served. As a result, we built a high metal gate at our entrance that was padlocked and only if the invisible supplicant could convince Florence, our sceptical and worldly-wise cook, of the urgency of the matter would she let them in.

Our car was small and deliberately filled with empty containers and boxes to discourage would-be passengers who often did not mind where you were actually going. Such measures were not purely selfish but a matter of economic survival.

It is assumed that aunts and uncles returning from the diaspora like us are rich and can continuously fund a mini-welfare state from birth, through schooling, to marriage dowries and burial feasts.

Limited by language and relying on a translator, my initial contribution to meetings was confined to sucking a pipe while looking serious. I continually consulted cousins, brothers-in-law and ancient but very alert aunts who advised on what was culturally and politically acceptable.

These advisers included a city lawyer, the former regional attorney general of Port Sudan, a foreign-exchange dealer, the senior procurement manager of a large government department in Juba, and our neighbour and nephew, a workaholic farmer whose cattle, chickens and goats take priority over his wives and family.

Thanks to their advice, I now greet unwelcome and unasked-for comments or politically poisoned suggestions with a grunt, then slowly raise my eyes to the far-off mountains round Lake Albert where they stay, unblinking, until the message is received.

Dr David Vost studied medicine at Glasgow University and is currently working at a hospital in Swaziland. He and his family live on a small farm in Northern Uganda near the Albert Nile.