NEIGHBOURS mean people, animals or geographical features living near enough to influence you socially and spiritually. They may not necessarily be friendly, although it helps, but they are not uninterested in you, whereas studies of the inhabitants of modern cities, whether suburban or in central flats, frequently show the opposite, a chilling indifference that must be depressing for all concerned. Growing up in Stirling then moving to a Glasgow tenement benchmarked the value of good neighbours and this holds true in Africa.

In the midst of the civil war in South Sudan, the nearest neighbour was a nephew, Martin Lagu, a robust no-nonsense 40-year-old who lived in a colourfully panelled house 200 metres away in the bush. Our families often helped each other. One afternoon, a crowd of aggressive men appeared, claiming the land. Lagu went to his house and returned to face the armed host. By then he had collected a revolver and a shotgun. He ignored the intruders and drew a line in our compound’s dusty ground, then announced in a loud but steady voice that anyone proceeding over his line would be shot. It would not have been for the first time; the now retreating mob were aware of the results of a previous confrontation.

The neighbours round our cottage in Swaziland are on a par with those in Scotland – friendly without being intrusive, willing to offer practical help and advice when asked (eg how to remove an unidentified snake from a cupboard or smoke out a bike of bees), exchanging information on unexpected subjects (eg why the vivid green patches far up on the surrounding hill may be of interest to marijuana smokers) and keeping those interested up to date on local affairs, whether political or marital.

They are in contrast to those in Dalriach, an upmarket suburb of the capital, Mbabane, where we spent a brief spell. My son and I made the mistake of going round the high-walled, electric-gated abodes with the sounds of carnivorous beasts within, to introduce ourselves and perhaps exchange phone numbers in case of emergency. I retreated in disarray, feeling like a cross between a paedophile – “Please do not touch my child! ” – and a seasoned criminal setting up their houses for a weekend clean-out.

Down on the farm, Peter, the patriarch of our small community, will discuss the health of his ripening acre of black-eyed beans and why he is not selling them to the Anglican mission – “They still haven’t paid me for last year’s crop, these Christians.” The month before, I had found him standing in the middle of the rough track early one morning, a great smile on his face. “Look at these mealies, Doc, they’re huge, man!” It was a bumper crop after several years of drought, his eyes were shining and he almost danced along the rows of tall corn as his inspection continued.

His philosophy is beguilingly simple – “I’m just a farmer and we live off the land. No stress. Now there you go, off to that hospital, all noise and worries.” His sister, also a small farmer, is similar, gentle and generous, although not as prone to dancing for joy. After my wife arrived for a visit and hearing about the lack of vegetables in South Sudan due to the civil war, she filled our kitchen with bags of freshly harvested ones from her fields, later keeping an eye on our son while his mother was having an eye operation.

Neighbours also include Buster, the alert mongrel forever checking for chewed chicken bones outside the kitchen door, often spending the night there on the steps between barking at real or imagined noises and threats; Oscar, the great brown owl, who skims the tree tops every night, occasionally coming down almost to head height to inspect you, like one of the old RAF Sunderland flying boats on coastal patrol; and various children who will tell you where they caught the fish they’re taking home for supper and what bait they used.

Kenny the landlord often comes by to do odd repairs or just to catch up on news. Glass of wine in hand, we stand in the late afternoon sun, putting the world back on its axis, any passers-by joining in. And if the new kitchen door later falls off its hinges – well, you ask him to come round again and give his opinion. After all, he’s a neighbour...

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.