ONE definition of a consulting room is a place where one seeks information or advice from a professional, usually a doctor or a lawyer. Modern ones may be bereft of colour but with high tech electronics to the fore, their walls gleaming but bare, seating smart functional, the reception areas similar. Patients are assumed not to want any diversion from their symptoms or illness, being anxious, worried, in pain or scared stiff.

My favourite one was surrounded by mountains in the remote village of Piggs Peak in Swaziland. The waiting room offered a choice of sitting inside on robust wooden chairs with arm rests surrounded by pot plants with batiks on the walls, or out on the stone veranda with a magnificent view across the valley.

The current one is in a very modern hospital, computers and ringing telephones everywhere, with the ceaseless excretion of numerous printers threatening to bury everyone under piles of fullscap. Patients and their entourages are met at reception and led to the office, much useful information gleaned visually and verbally on the way. The door is then locked as laboratory staff and cleaners assume they are invisible and enter unannounced in the midst of consultations. The large desk is pushed against one wall, not between the seated patient and the doctor. The computer and muted telephone are not in prominent view.

One wall has six large colourful, anatomically correct diagrams of the lungs, heart, abdomen, male and female genital systems and the sensory organs, works of art in themselves and a source of education and interest to all and sundry, even in the Google age where many patients come armed with print-outs or mind-sets supporting their self-diagnosis.

Children are examined on their parent’s lap or sitting up on the examination bed with the doctor kneeling beside them and mother in sight – we were taught never to make direct eye contact with kids and to keep below eye level when examining them; this adds to the laundry bill for trousers but keeps geriatric knee and hip joints supple on busy days. The bowl of oranges or apples at hand rewards young heroes who’ve braved invasive throat swabbing or worse without going over the top with screams.

Textbooks, medical handbooks and internet research engines are looked up during the consultation, often to the surprise and unease of those present, their doubt remaining after my admission that I cannot remember the 148 side-effects of the medicines they are taking.

While Picasso can rest easy, I do enjoy drawing simple diagrams to illuminate hidden nooks and crannies which may be a source of their symptoms; the downside of this is the occasional trauma suffered by one of our reception or accounts staff who in all innocence turns over the consultation sheet to be faced with some very explicit drawings not found in Sunday schools.

The busiest consulting room desk I ever saw belonged to Sam Earnshaw, a formidable criminal and civil lawyer in Swaziland’s capital, Mbabane. It was stacked with legal files, perhaps a hundred, with even more on the adjacent floor. Yet he could find those needed without hesitation and quoted me the results of an academic study of lawyers’ desk loads which showed it was a not inefficient system for prioritising urgency and relevance – including those files that fell off the desk unnoticed.

The antithesis of a family doctor’s consulting session was the day a small team of nurses and I arrived on a summer morning at a monthly clinic near Isandlwana in Zululand, the site of the battle in 1879 when the Zulu impis out-thought and out-fought the British Army under Lord Chelmsford. There were about 200 patients waiting. For the next eight hours, they remained calm and good-humoured. Several required urgent treatment and were dispatched to the hospital at Nqutu as soon as transport could be commandeered.

During that endless day amidst remarkably resilient people, Punch Magazine’s famous cartoon often came to mind. It was published not long after the battle at Isandlwana and showed a member of the Zulu royal family in leopard skins, stabbing spear and cowhide shield in one hand, pointing to the blackboard in front of which huddled a discomfited John Bull. The words on the board read: ‘Despise not thine enemy.’

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