"Sometimes I wake up at night and ask myself, ‘Where am I? What language should I speak today?’" says 53-year-old Aldo Lo Curto. "I’m a nomad. During my six months in Italy, I save as much as I can from my medical practice, and that pays for my travel the rest of the year, helping those who need me. I’m independent, autonomous. I collaborate with organizations and individuals, but I don’t depend on them."
Blending East and West
In the early 1980s, Dr Lo Curto began spending several months each year with indigenous people in various countries, healing their illnesses and teaching them how to avoid falling ill again. In the early 1990s, working with a Brazilian botanist and a cartoonist, he wrote a health manual for the people of the Amazon, describing, for the principal diseases in the region, both indigenous plant remedies and Western pharmaceutical treatment. He applied for a Rolex Award to fund publication of the book and won. His 1993 Award enabled him to print 2,000 copies of the manual, in Portuguese, Brazil’s national language, which he gave to health workers and indigenous people in the Amazon, as well as to doctors, nurses and biologists abroad who sent requests for copies. The manual proved so successful that he produced another version for residents of Brazil’s slums. In 1998, an African version of the manual was published in English and French.
Dr Lo Curto’s work has greatly expanded thanks to his Rolex Award. The most concrete proof of the change is, he says, the four compact address books he carries with him everywhere, listing his 3,000 contacts around the world, the vast majority of them acquired since the media spread the news of his 1993 Award. The thousands of contacts in many regions, in many organizations and within many areas of specialist knowledge reflect the rich variety of Aldo Lo Curto’s philanthropic work worldwide with indigenous people, particularly the most vulnerable among them — the sick, the old, the young and the imprisoned.
His generosity and his range of interests and knowledge mean that he is constantly called upon, to talk, to teach and practise as a doctor. "When I get back to Canzo after my travels, there are always invitations. The latest one is from the Red Cross in Samarkand," Lo Curto explains. And, whenever he can, he accepts.
Describing himself as "at the service of others", Aldo Lo Curto is happy "to let someone else choose for me. Sometimes I don’t choose where I go. I prefer to be called." This arrangement is ideal, at least for him. "Each year, I work with many people I know in regions I know. But I also like to add something new."
His Second Home
But he admits to a special affection for Brazil, where he spends four months most years, including 2002. "Brazil is my second home. I’ve spent so much time there over the years, and it’s a country of the south. I’m a southerner too, born in Sicily. And Brazil is the country that shows us the future of humanity. It’s the country where there is the strongest racial mix," he says, explaining that Brazil has citizens of Latin American, African and European origins, and every possible combination of the three.
During his Brazil visits, Lo Curto has come to know many Amerindian communities. Their stone-age culture has, he says, much to teach us. "Their basic principles of life — respect for nature, respect for children and respect for old people — have something to tell us, something that we have lost. There is no such thing as theft in their villages. They have no money, and they can count up to five only. For more than five, they say: ‘Many, many’. And they have no form of writing, so the elderly are their source of knowledge."
Of their respect for nature, he says: "They are animists and talk to plants. When they gather leaves for tea they apologise, and they do the same to a tree when they cut down its trunk to make a canoe."
But, Lo Curto, who lives with the villagers for months at a time, also recognizes that their ancient lifestyle poses dangers to their physical health, and this is one of the reasons he continues to visit and teach them. He works with the Amerindian shamans, providing a combination of Western and natural medical care to villagers who fall ill. And, even more importantly, he teaches them how to live more healthily.
"I teach at sunset, when the men come back from the hunt. I talk about health, about personal hygiene, domestic hygiene and village hygiene. Amerindians live in symbiosis with animals, so their houses are full of animals and their droppings, as well as rubbish and broken bottles. Just by teaching them basic hygiene, we have succeeded in reducing illness by 30 per cent in the villages. It’s difficult to explain microbes and germs to them, as often they don’t believe in what they can’t see. I once used a microscope to show them some microbes on a slide, and they wanted to smash the microscope as they thought the germs were creatures living inside it."
Most Troubled Destinations
Part of his 2002 visit to Brazil was spent at Mato Grosso, a savannah region in the centre of the country where the forest has been destroyed and many people have lost their land to others. Lo Curto is concentrating on working with young people in this troubled region where youth suicide rates are among the highest in the world. Further south, near Rio de Janeiro, in the middle of the year he visited three villages of the Guaranis, a local indigenous group. He helped them establish a school where their children will be taught in their native language, with approval from the Brazilian government. He has also arranged for an off-road vehicle to be provided to the community so that gravely ill villagers can be taken to hospital.
In 2002, his travels also took him to Benin, in West Africa, where he spent a month doctoring and teaching in the town of Ganvie, built on a lagoon and often called the "Venice of Africa". With no electricity and appalling living conditions, many of the residents suffer major health problems. Lo Curto had visited the town several years earlier, and was alerted early last year by people at a local Christian mission that his help was needed again.
He spent September 2002 in Mongolia, working with the Red Cross, again combining health care with health education, and often travelling vast distances on horseback to provide medical care to patients. It was his fifth visit to Mongolia.
Lo Curto always works in cooperation with traditional doctors in the countries he visits, and is as eager to learn as he is to teach. "My constant concern is to understand the traditions of the people I visit and to understand how they deal with illness," he says. "In the West there is too much emphasis on technology in medicine and not enough on human contact." Referring to the increasing use by doctors, particularly in the developed world, of computer files containing patients’ records, Aldo Lo Curto laments that doctors are so busy looking at the patients’ records on the computer screen that they have lost visual contact with the patient.
"Amerindian shamans, on the other hand, are medicine men in a much wider sense than our doctors,” he says. They care for both the body and the spirit. While administering a natural remedy to the patient, the shaman speaks fervently to the spirit world so that the patient’s soul will not abandon the body. So the shaman is both doctor and priest.
The "Whole" Patient
"We ‘white’ doctors are becoming more and more specialized. As we concentrate on the ‘sick organ’, we entirely forget about the rest of the body, which, however, has a vital relation with the suffering organ. Above all, we forget that we are dealing with a whole person, psyche included. Often an illness is merely a symptom of a more profound imbalance.
"Unfortunately, I’ve never seen a Western doctor pray with a patient. Our universities don’t teach young doctors about the spiritual side of healing. When I deal with a seriously ill patient, even in Europe, I give them as much time as possible. Even when people are in a coma, I don’t leave them alone. The patient needs to be accompanied."
Aldo Lo Curto is already dreaming of visits to other indigenous people, such as Australia’s Aboriginal communities, to blend his own Western medical remedies with those of traditional healers. And he will of course keep returning to the villages of the Amazon, one of whose ancient sayings has practically become his motto: "The earth was not left to us by our fathers, but is on loan to us from our children."
Published in 2003