The law for us kids in the 1950s and 1960s meant the local police. They walked their beats and turned up in awkward places. They knew everyone and took no nonsense. Worse yet, many were my father’s patients or in his St John Ambulance first aid class, so they had a vested interest in his offspring not going off the rails.

In my fifth year at Stirling High School, my parents were made aware that possible expulsion was in the air.

There had been continued absences from cross-country running afternoons, and a chemistry class had to be evacuated due to the sudden production of clouds of dense white smoke.

Then there was a public strapping at the main entrance of the school by the gowned headmaster for repeated lateness which was gleefully observed by my peers from upstairs classroom windows.

There was also a poem, influenced by Robert Burns, describing the ample bosom of our French teacher, that had come to light after being proudly if naively shown to classmates.

Years later, the gulf between Scotland and our parts of Africa was underlined when a nursing sister from Soweto in South Africa, who had trained at the famous Baragwanath teaching hospital, was reading the headlines of a Glasgow morning paper I’d brought back from annual leave.

“28 murders last year. New national record”, screamed the headline.

“Hau! We have more than that in a weekend at Bara,” the nursing sister said.

Tribes and rural communities here have their own laws, based on oral tradition and precedent, police and government authorities often not being involved.

For example, our elderly uncle’s goats, having eaten his neighbours’ cassava shrubs, were confiscated until the agreed fine was paid.

Our own cow evaded an inattentive herd boy for an illegal lunch of sorghum.

Had this been repeated, the felon’s calf would have become community property to be auctioned off.

Currently, the parents of a young man guilty of several thefts and assaults, at a hearing of the community’s elders, will have their belongings dumped outside their huts, the doors locked, and have to move outside the area.

The son was handed over to the police by the elders and imprisoned without further ado, later to join his deported family.

My wife’s tribe, the Madi of southern Sudan, have discouraging rules for major offences, a fact explained to me while negotiating the bride price with her relatives in Khartoum.

Should the happy couple do the unthinkable before marriage or commit adultery afterwards, you are bound hand and foot before being taken to a traditional site in the bush.

A length of fresh bamboo is split, two internal rings cut out, and your head rammed into the gap, each end then being tightly spliced.

The tensile strength of the young bamboo as it dried out in the fierce heat literally scrambled your brains – but long before that one of numerous predators like hyenas or leopards would have ended your predicament.

My own tribe’s now politically-incorrect approach to law-breaking seems sensible.

Dave Torrance was from Dundee, the much-respected manager of the first sugar mill at Simunye in Swaziland.

If an employee did something daft that endangered himself or his mates, the two of them would go round to the back of the factory, strip to the waist and fight bare-fisted.

There were no disciplinary hearings, no trades union inquiries and company reports, a visit to the clinic for repairs (Torrance was strong, fit and agile) instead taking their place.

The trappings of the law in Swaziland are more formal than the foregoing, bewigged judges garbed in startling crimson dressing gowns trimmed with artificial white fur.

The accused often insist on conducting their own defence despite pleas from the bench not to do so.

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. If you wish to contact Dr Vost, send an email to

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.